A solid family movie with relevance, and that's rare.

James Plath's picture

Made-for-TV movie isn't always a synonym for mediocrity. Though the typical TV movie is designed to take an audience on an emotional arc within the convenient span of 90 minutes (sans commercials)--which almost always requires the use of genre conventions and formulae--there still are some good ones out there. Like this 2005 movie funded in part by the Canadian government.

It's based on the true story of Simon Jackson, who, at age 13, founded the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition and was named one of Time magazine's heroes of the planet for his work protecting the environment of the rare white Kermode "spirit" bear in his native British Columbia.

While "Spirit Bear" may begin like a Disney Channel movie, with a "hip" teacher (who bears a striking resemblance to the drama teacher from "High School Musical") urging her students to get involved, to find a cause, to be an activist instead of a passive consumer of life, it quickly evolves into an engaging person-against-the-system drama like "Silkwood" or "Norma Rae"--only lighter. Aside from one threatening phone call, young Simon and his family remain unscathed throughout a campaign that has him squaring off against the entire logging industry, personified by spokesperson Frank Perdue (Ed Begley, Jr.). Partly, one suspects it's because the lumber baron didn't take this 13-year-old boy seriously, and partly it's because, no dummy, the boy took his cause right to high-profile events in front of TV cameras. It's tough trying to intimidate someone who's that visible.

That's one of he lessons to be learned here for young would-be activists. In addition to being an entertaining film, "Spirit Bear" is a textbook case for how to get involved and how to make a difference--no matter what the cause. It's the kind of film that all young people should see, especially now, when uneducated opinions seem to be shaping public discourse. Simon (Mark Rendall) does extensive research on the Kermode bear and logging, knowing that knowledge, not jingoism, is power. Along the way he finds a mentor in Native American environmentalist Lloyd Blackburn (Graham Greene) and a sidekick in Marcus Perdue (Katie Stuart), a grunge-dressing 13 year old who's more assertive and who nicely offsets Simon's shyness--except that for the film version, Simon's and his friend's ages seem to have inflated by a few years.

It would be easy to write this film off as yet another tree-huggers vs. business conflict, if it weren't for the fact that this is a young boy we're watching and what we see is based on a true story. "Avatar" gave an old story a new twist, and so does "Spirit Bear." Filmed in British Columbia, the movie gives us strong visuals, an early encounter with a bear that opens Simon's eyes, and a point-of-view that's almost exclusively middle-school. Simon does everything without consulting his parents, with only enough interaction to make their relationship seem normal. They're proud of him, of course, and have suggestions for him, but for the most part it's all Simon. That makes the fight even more of a David and Goliath story.

"Spirit Bear" is the type of movie that I can readily see being shown in junior-high classes that study environmentalism or political activism. It's well acted, beautifully filmed, and wholesome as can be. There's no disrespect shown by the young activist, even as he gets his butt kicked and handed to him in a televised debate. And there's no objectionable language. Canadian rock band The Trews makes an appearance, but you're conscious of the fact that this film is on its best behavior. Still, it all feels real, and that's one hurdle that most made-for-TV movies fail to clear. And while the protagonists are teens, the film never feels as if it's aimed solely at that audience. My nuance meter detects no trace of pandering.

This is a re-release, with Questar picking up the title after it went out of print. I think a lot of people will be grateful that they did.

The video is a made-for-TV 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with a consistent layer of grain that's more pleasing than it is offensive. Colors are natural-looking, and that helps a lot. So does edge delineation that's strong, for a DVD presentation.

The audio is a bare-bones English Dolby Digital Stereo that sounds a little flat and front-heavy even during musical numbers. My advice: crank up the volume.

There are no bonus features. Too bad. I think a teachable moment just slipped by.

Bottom Line:
"Spirit Bear" won the Audience Choice Award for Best Feature Film at the Toronto International Film Festival and a Director's Guild of Canada Award for Outstanding Family Television Movie/Mini-Series when it first aired. It's a solid family movie with relevance, and that's rare. I recommend it for families with children ages 8 and older. The younger ones can see it, but it'll be a little over their heads.


Film Value