Though the new film Cocaine Bear wants desperately to be a meme, it is based, however minimally, in truth: One time in 1985, a black bear really did ingest a bunch of cocaine after the drug runner carrying it jumped out of a plane with a faulty parachute. The real-life black bear died. In Cocaine Bear, he goes on a coke-fueled rampage, horrifically killing a bunch of humans in pursuit of exactly what George Carlin said the bear, or anyone else, would want after doing cocaine: more cocaine. This is not the first time an on-screen bear has been imbued with human characteristics, however. The history of cinema is filled with instances of bears having completely understandable and even correct reactions to a situation at hand. These aren’t just cuddly cartoon bears, either, though there are some of those. (The Care Bears, however, can go scratch.) Sometimes nature has the right idea, even without being assigned overtly human characteristics or disturbing animatronics. It takes all kinds of bears to gain the moral or strategic upper hand over humans.
Here are ten notable instances of movie bears being right:
10. Cocaine Bear
Admittedly, the way that Cocaine Bear fuses gory horror-style “kills” with a faulty, faux-irreverent sense of humor is exactly why it’s such a weightlessly mean-spirited experience; with a handful of exceptions, it doesn’t even bother supplying characters so venal or irredeemable that their deaths become satisfying forms of natural justice. What makes the bear’s actions feel so correct in this movie is the creature’s general instinct to wipe out everyone on screen in pursuit of its own pleasures. This may be in the form of mountains of cocaine, or something simpler and less damaging, such as the movie Cocaine Bear eventually coming to an end. But well before that endpoint, it becomes clear that the bear is right: None of these flimsy, largely uninteresting human characters deserve to be on screen—and the black bear who died in real life deserved a better fate than an accidental overdose. If nothing else, Cocaine Bear rights those wrongs simultaneously.
9. The Edge
Anthony Hopkins plays a rich man trapped in the Alaskan wilderness with a younger photographer (Alec Baldwin) who may have designs on killing the old man so that he can abscond with his model wife (Elle Macpherson). But a Kodiak bear (played by the late, great Bart the Bear) understands that toxic masculinity and manly gamesmanship are zero-sum games, which it communicates by stalking and attempting to devour the two men throughout the wilderness. It does not completely succeed, but it is a noble effort to stop two men from communicating in Mametspeak (David Mamet wrote the screenplay to The Edge, which is, admittedly, an enjoyably nasty take on the survival thriller). In other words: Men would rather battle a Kodiak bear in the Alaskan wilderness, possibly killing each other in the process, than go to therapy.
8. The Revenant
Look, was it “good,” what that bear did to Leonardo DiCaprio in the one scene everyone associates with The Revenant? No, of course not. It was borderline rude. But did the bear-assisted suffering allow DiCaprio to finally win that Oscar he wanted, and spare us from him doing more movies as awards-thirsty as The Revenant? Yes, it did! Points to the bear.
7. The Wolverine
Early in The Wolverine, when Logan (Hugh Jackman) is hanging out on his own in the Yukon woods, he comes across a grizzly bear, walking in parallel down a snowy hill. Both beasts mark their territory and respectfully give each other their space. Later, when hunters attack and mortally wound the bear, it plaintively cries for a mercy kill from the former Wolverine, who obliges—and then tracks down the hunters to punish them for using poison-tipped arrows. The bear understands what the humans do not: to not seek violence and, specifically, to not fuck with Wolverine.
6. The Country Bears
The movie version of the semi-beloved third-tier Disney theme-park attraction is a largely charmless Muppet bootleg, as young Beary Barrington (voiced, in a rare bad performance, by Haley Joel Osment!) traverses the country in an attempt to convince members of the Country Bears to reunite and save their old music hall. There are only six Country Bears in the band, plus Big Al, their property’s caretaker, but after slogging through seemingly endless scenes of recruiting the bears, one by one, as various human singers walk on to make their in-jokes, the band seems as swollen with personnel as Broken Social Scene. But insufferable as he is in both attitude and catalyzing the plot of a very boring children’s movie, Beary is correct that big-deal band reunions are a lot more exciting if every original member is intact, no matter how goddamned annoying they may be on an individual level.
5. Brother Bear
It’s not that Koda (voiced by Jeremy Suarez), the chatty bear cub befriended by human-turned-bear Kenai (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix!), has a lot of wisdom to directly impart, or that Kenai learns anything particularly new about the world by experiencing bear culture which, if anything, is depicted as ridiculously similar to human life. But none of the bears in Brother Bear live with the same insecurities and toxic masculinity that fuels Kenai in his human form; as the movie explains, he becomes a man only by committing to bearhood.
Fine, internet: We can admit that Paddington, the bear hero of a classic book series and a pair of well-regarded family films, has some pretty solid advice about how “if we’re kind and polite, the world will be right.” This may not be 100% true in every situation, but it’s certainly how the world should operate, and Paddington is, in the end, correct to teach kindness and respect to his audience of children and slightly weird adults. In Paddington 2, which has a semi-inexplicable reputation of vastly exceeding the original rather than more or less equaling it, Paddington even engages in some prison reform, albeit from his stint as a prisoner, rather than an authority figure.
In this low-budget 2010 offering that will presumably live forever on YouTube and/or Tubi and/or SEO-friendly lists of killer-bear movies, some feckless young people go into the woods, shoot a bear out of fear, and then get stalked by a second bear, seeking revenge. This is a simple one: The bear is correct and deserves his revenge. He also is correct to play cruel psychological tricks on his victims. Why else would the movie be called Bear, rather than Idiots?
2. The Bear
Jean-Jacques Annaud’s nature-film adventure is a showcase for Bart the Bear (star of The Edge, among many others), and also for bears in general, because by virtue of assuming their point of view without too much anthropomorphizing or abandoning narrative entirely, the bear “characters” have to make a series of decisions; there isn’t much room for a bear undergoing a character arc featuring self-made mistakes. It is thematically fitting, though, that the male Kodiak bear who adopts an orphaned cub and shows mercy to his human hunters is the movie’s de facto voice (growl?) of reason.
1. The Jungle Book
A friend of mine once pointed out that the job of many Disney sidekicks is to sing a song extolling a particular lifestyle/philosophy, whether it’s undersea living or living with no worries, that the lead character eventually rejects. And long before “Hakuna Matata,” Baloo was singing about the joys of “The Bare Necessities,” which his little human buddy Mowgli quietly renounces once he catches glimpse of other humans, after resisting his own kind for the whole movie. But is there anything particularly great about Mowgli living with his own kind, or anything particularly wrong with Baloo’s laid-back minimalism? Is Baloo not simply advocating for life’s simple pleasures, and encouraging Mowgli to shy away from excessive consumption or materialism? As usual, bear simplicity rules the day.
Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.