I first borrowed the french version of this DVD from the library a couple of years ago when my daughter was 2 years old. On first viewing I was somewhat shocked at the brutal reality of the events in this movie. There were some pretty heavy things going on that many might want to shield a small child from - vicious wolf attacks, a stillbirth, nudity, kidnapping, frightening ghosts, the bloody carcass of a harpooned polar bear, mythic transformations between animal and human, etc.. I thought perhaps it was not age appropriate, but to my surprise and delight, my daughter thoroughly enjoyed it and the next day wanted to watch it again. And it is now probably her most watched DVD, surpassing even Jungle Book and all the other Disney classics.
But this movie is the very antithesis a Disney movie - no sugar coating here. It is raw, it is sparse, but it is genuine. And it also has it's delightful moments and it's comic relief provided by it's jester - the raven.
I would delineate three major themes in the film. First there is the supreme joy of childbirth and parenthood juxtaposed with the profound sadness of losing a child and being bereft and despondent. Then there is the struggle to gain identity in a world that tries to force you to be what you are not. And finally there is the prevalence of mythic reality associated with nature and the spirit world suffering the onslaught of the
mechanistic worldview that sees nature as an inanimate resource that exists merely to be exploited.
It's interesting to compare the mythic elements of this movie with the supernatural aspects of the Christian gospels. Little Bear and Mama Bear (corresponding to Jesus and Mary) are associated with the constellations Ursa Minor and Ursa Major The pole star being part of Ursa Minor represents the fixed part of the sky dome, around which rotate the 12 signs of the zodiac (like the 12 apostles). The crucifix represents this alignment with the polar axis. One stunning scene in the movie has Little Bear being lanced in the side with his father's spear, just as Christ was lanced in the side on the cross. The only-begotten Son becomes the sacrificial Lamb of God.
At the death of Mama Bear, Little Bear hears her voice from above telling him to seek the Spirit of the Mountain for guidance. Raven, like the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, provides the linkage with the Spirit world and eventually leads Little Bear to the cave where he can commune with the Spirit. It is here that he is assigned three trials to undergo before his transformation, just as Jesus undergoes three trials in the desert before his rebirth is complete. The descent into the cave - the womb of Mother Earth - and the immersion in water (like the descent into Hell and the baptism of Christ) to be reborn in the spirit and the ritual trials in the wilderness are central themes in human prehistory and echo in our psyches. But these ancient memories are in danger of being lost as we become alienated from our past in the modern post-industrial universe.
How ironic it is then, that the polar bear more than any other creature, by it's threatened survival due to mechanistic man-induced global warming, now demonstrates to us the error of our ways.