19 December 2010

A Bear Named Winnie

A Bear Named Winnie Too Cute for Words
By Kristin Battestella

Shut up, it has Michael Fassbender and teddy bears, how can the 2004 Canadian TV movie A Bear Named Winnie not be adorable?

After rescuing a black bear cub before she’s killed by a hunter, Lieutenant Harry Colebourn (Fassbender) and his fellow Canadian Army Veterinary Core tent mate Ian Macray (Jonathon Young) take in the bear as their unit’s mascot and name her Winnipeg after Harry’s hometown.  Called Winnie for short, the bear warms the hearts of the men, all except for stern Colonel John Barret (Gil Bellows).  Barret repeatedly tells Harry that Winnie cannot continue with the expeditionary force overseas and to the Great War battlefront in France, so Harry reluctantly leaves Winnie at the London Zoo.  While in the care of zookeeper Protheroe (Stephen Fry), Winnie delights young children and inspires author A. A. Milne to write his famed Winnie the Pooh tales.

I didn’t want to like this movie. I thought it was going to be stupid and juvenile and purely a pretty boy indulgence fest for girlie girls who have stuffed animals lining their car dashboards and ‘Babe In Total Control of Herself’ bumper stickers. I am not one of those girls, and A Bear Named Winnie is quite the contrary- you just can’t help but enjoy it.  Naturally, some of the animal photography is a bit hectic and choppy, but those types of cinematics are forgivable when working with excited bears or horses.  I’m also not sure why director John Kent Harrison (Helen of Troy) chose to have a few bear perspective shots in some scenes, as they are a little confusing and imperfect as well.   Thankfully, there’s plenty of family friendly humor, bear hijinks, and charm in this slightly more original story than familiar tales like Black Beauty and The Incredible Journey.  Of course, you’ll never hear the actual phrase ‘Winnie the Pooh’ here thanks to the Disney monopoly, but this seemingly simple story of a soldier and his bear is well paced, moving along nicely with enough antagonistic drama mixed in with the heart warming bear bonding. World War I angles and mild battle action don’t fully enter the picture until very late and co writers John Goldsmith (Victoria and Albert) and Simon Vaughan (Grange Hill) smartly fade out the scariest war stuff.  This is a family show, remember, but the subtle debate about the softness of new men versus old school war tactics and the coming of modern warfare machinery is dealt with wonderfully.  Yes, it’s all so dang sentimental, but so what? You would think there isn’t enough story here to fill a 90-minute movie, but there’s more heart and soul in this little ditty then some supposedly big and magical but short and crappy recent American films, coughjonahhexcough.

Well, if his acting accolades weren’t enough to make you like Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Fish Tank, Inglorious Basterds), A Bear Name Winnie certainly ups his adorable ante tenfold. Not only is the chameleon-like actor’s Canadian accent on form, but my goodness there is a reason he keeps making assorted wartime films: he looks so dang good in uniform.  Not everybody can pull of the WWI look and not just seem like a becostumed actor in those goofy wingy pants on some sputtering antique motorcycle.  Lady fans will eat up all the teary eyed close up shots, and one delicious horse whispering scene would certainly get you- if it weren’t followed by the delightful rescue of the titular Winnie.  And my gosh one quote I read online in response to this cuddly bear licking Fassy’s face and snuggling up beside him with a baby bottle between its paws sums up the eye candy perfectly, ‘I never wanted to be a bear so much in my life.’

Well, now that the melt worthy indulgence is out of the way, it would seem like Fassbender doesn’t have an easy job in A Bear Named Winnie. He is after all, talking to a dang bear, and that isn’t exactly heavy hitting dialogue.  The bear kind of drops a deuce in his lap, too (hee).  All this stand-up teddy bear fun does indeed make Harry all the more charming, but the transition from all the cuteness to implied wartime trauma is handled well by The Fass.  Harry realizes the lessons and growing up to be learned in the war, most definitely- but, there are still a lot of happy tears and golly gee shucks to go around.  One might think A Bear Name Winnie was just a struggling actor’s paycheck without a lot of room to really stretch the acting muscles. However, Fassbender’s genuine emotion, tears, and sentiment comes through in both the affectionate gazes and glossed over wartime eyes.  This is how you know the guy is a true actor, he could get by with modest, even blockbuster success just by being a pretty boy like this in any given film- yet he chooses to starve himself to make films like Hunger or goes without a script to play a latent pedophile in Fish Tank.  This is why Fassbender in such demand now- from cutting his acting chops on films like this.

The delightful support and fun antagonists in A Bear Name Winnie also add lovely family treats.  Gil Bellows (Ally McBeal) balances the stern Colonel Barret wonderfully with kooky David Suchet (Poirot) as General Hallholland.  One might not think there’s room for a layered storyline here, but the two commanders- one going down and seeking lost glory while the other is ready to meet 20th century warfare head on- add the global scope and transitional ideals of the time.  Neither is wrong, just both let their own personal ways get in the way- just like the way they claim our boys’ attachment to Winnie will make them soft.  Some of the nerdy soldiers are a little interchangeable, and it might be tough to tell who is who and catch all their names and ranks, but everyone is all in good fun here.  Jonathon Young (Sanctuary) and Aaron Ashmore (Smallville) must have enjoyed themselves, and the charm shows. Stephen Fry (Wilde, Blackadder) doesn’t have a large role as the reluctant zookeeper who comes round to Winnie yet hates kids and calls them ‘vermin’; but his clout bookends A Bear Name Winnie nicely.   

Bear Named WinnieAlthough it’s just a little Canadian television original, A Bear Named Winnie looks the period piece part.  The costumes perfectly mix the old Victorian pre-war styles with later twenties hip looks.  The uniforms, tall leather boots, and pageboy hats look dynamite, too.  It’s really a shame we don’t dress with this kind of class anymore.  While there is plenty of Fassbender and soldier boy company at which to gawk, there is something to top all that:  the bears are effing adorable indeed. I know I said it before, but it bears repeating.  (Ha, no pun intended!) These little performing black bears can warm the coldest heart- I laughed, and I even cried; and I’m not a giggly and gaga kind of girl at all. But these little f*ckers are too damn cute.  I shouldn’t curse when talking about such a family oriented program, but it’s like when you must squeeze a fat baby’s chubby little cheek- you just can’t help yourself.  The fact that this lovely story also looms along with the neat- if often unseen- aspects of Canadian WWI action is all the better.  We hardly see American Great War action anymore in film as it is, and here the viewer is treated to veterinary corps entrusted with cavalry upkeep- definitely something out of the past to us 21st century folks. Likewise, the fun vehicles, quirky sidecars, period accessories, wonderfully idyllic scenery, and cute ragtime musical charm tie A Bear Named Winnie together with a very pretty bow on top.  

Naturally, some big bear bits, hunting threats, horse injuries, the prospect of animal deaths, separation and loss, and implied battle deaths might be scary for super young ones. Otherwise, the 10 and up set can’t not enjoy this silly little movie. A nice little coda explains the happy fates and further Winnie the Pooh inspirations, softening any scary blows, too.  A short making of featurette on the DVD is also a lot of fun.  Animal lovers and Fassinators will enjoy seeing him and the bears playing with the trainers off screen.  Netflix options and streaming opportunities also make it easy to find A Bear Named Winnie, but alas, there are no subtitles.  I suppose no film is perfect! 

Although one could simply take A Bear Named Winnie for the 90 minutes worth of young and pretty Michael Fassbender snuggling cute little bears, there’s much more here than that. Gather the girls for an indulgent night or tune in for a family funfest and learn the history of ‘Pooh’. 

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