Disney Plus-Or-Minus: King Of The Grizzlies
Hey there, Mouseketeers! Before we get to this week’s movie, I’d like to get some feedback from you. For a while now, I've been toying with the idea of adding a paid tier to the regular Disney Plus-Or-Minus columns (sort of a Disney Plus-Or-Minus+ if you will). This would cover things that fall outside the Disney Plus-Or-Minus umbrella: TV productions, shorts, even Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures eventually.
My first question, obviously, is would this be interesting enough for you to spend a couple bucks a month on it? Secondly, how much sounds like a reasonable amount to charge? Finally, what platform would be best for everyone? Substack? Patreon? Something else I haven't thought of yet?
Let me know your thoughts either in the comments down below, on the Jahnke’s Electric Theatre Facebook page, on Twitter (@DrAdamJahnke) or however else you might think a message could reach me. Thanks in advance for your thoughts and your continued support of this increasingly ambitious project! And now, we return to our regularly scheduled program.
By 1970, it had been a decade since Disney pulled the plug on the long-running True-Life Adventures series. In the years since, writer/narrator Winston Hibler had become a producer and most of the movies he’d worked on involved animals. Movies like Nikki, Wild Dog Of The North and Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar used True-Life Adventures techniques in a fictional setting. King Of The Grizzlies pushed that style even farther. It's the most documentary-like of Disney’s fictional animal features since Perri.
The movie was based on the book The Biography Of A Grizzly by Boy Scouts co-founder Ernest Thompson Seton. Eight years earlier, James Algar, another True-Life Adventures vet, adapted another Seton book as The Legend Of Lobo. The screenplay was by Jack Speirs (writer of Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar), TV writer Rod Peterson, and Norman Wright, who’d been working for Disney since the Fantasia days.
This would be Canadian filmmaker Ron Kelly’s one and only Disney film as a director. He’d continue to focus on local interest stories in his home country into the 1980s. Once again, Hibler utilized Lloyd Beebe and Cangary Limited to produce the nature footage. Director of photography Reginald Morris had a long history of shooting documentary shorts. He’d later become Bob Clark’s go-to cinematographer, shooting films like Black Christmas, Porky’s and A Christmas Story.
The star of the film is Big Ted, a 1,300-pound grizzly bear who worked for marshmallows, but the movie does include a handful of human actors who were presumably paid actual money. John Yesno plays Moki, a Cree who feels a spiritual connection to the bear he names Wahb. Yesno didn’t appear in a lot of movies but he did have a distinguished career as a broadcaster and activist in Canada.
Chris Wiggins costars as The Colonel, Moki’s former commanding officer and owner of the ranch Moki works at as foreman. Wiggins did a lot of voice work over the years, although none of it was for Disney. He voiced a number of different characters on Marvel’s animated shows of the 1960s, including Thor, Hawkeye and, appropriately enough in this context, Kraven the Hunter. Horror fans may recognize him as occult expert Jack Marshak from Friday The 13th: The Series. Wiggins and Yesno would also both appear in the 1980 Canadian TV-movie The Courage Of Kavik The Wolf Dog (John Candy, who will eventually appear in this column, also turned up in that one).
But Yesno, Wiggins and the other two-legged performers are definitely supporting players in this drama. We first meet the cub who would be king when he’s just a few months old, scampering around the mountains with his sister and Mama Bear. After more than 10 minutes of cute-baby-bears-being-cute footage, we encounter Moki. Moki was raised to respect the bear and even has a bear paw tattooed on his hand. So he’s not exactly a great first line of defense when the bear family meets up with the Colonel’s cattle.
Young Wahb starts the trouble when he finds a wayward calf (Hibler’s folksy narration assures us that Wahb’s intentions are strictly friendly). The resulting commotion attracts the attention of the Colonel, who shoots and kills Wahb’s mother and sister. Wahb himself manages to get away after tumbling off a cliff into the river below. In a switch from Disney’s usual anthropomorphic manipulation, the death of Wahb’s family isn’t played for pathos. Hibler lets us know that animals have blessedly short memories for such trauma and Wahb is back on his feet in no time.
A little later, Moki happens across the little bear cub, scared out of his wits up a tree. He rescues Wahb, straps him on to his horse, and rides off. But unlike humans in other Disney nature dramas, he doesn’t bring him home to raise him like a pet. Instead, he takes Wahb up the mountain to the site of his own coming-of-age ritual, far from the ranch. He lets the cub go, wishes him luck and heads for home, figuring they’ll probably never see each other again.
Wahb spends the rest of the year looking for food and meeting his new neighbors. An encounter with a black bear at a honey tree goes from bad to worse when an adult male grizzly decides to show everyone who’s boss. Poor little Wahb barely hangs on while the grizzly tries knocking over the tree he’s climbed. It’s a hard-knock life for Wahb. Winter arrives and Wahb returns to his birth den for hibernation, fighting off a couple of wolverines for squatter’s rights.
The story picks up four years later with Wahb finding a wolfpack circling a slab of meat hanging above a bunch of traps. Wahb springs the traps and heads back into the woods, seemingly none the worse for wear. But those traps were laid by Moki, who recognizes Wahb’s distinctive four-toed track. He finally tells the Colonel about rescuing the cub years earlier. Needless to say, this news doesn’t go over well.
Later on, one of the Colonel’s laziest ranch hands, Shorty (Hugh Webster, who appears in another movie this column will get to eventually), decides to catch forty winks while laying some fence posts. Out for some fun, Wahb knocks over the posts and wakes up Shorty. He manages to escape but the Colonel is now convinced that his ranch is on the verge of turning into a freakin’ country bear jamberoo. He demands Moki set bear traps around the property and to hell with his people’s sacred traditions.
Years later (this movie is big on time jumps), Moki comes face-to-face with Wahb, now a massive seven feet tall. Rather than firing his gun, Moki speaks to him in the language of the Cree. The words soothe Wahb and he leaves Moki alone, satisfied that the two of them are kindred spirits.
Unfortunately, he heads straight to the Colonel’s camp where he once again wakes up Shorty (so lazy), destroys the chuckwagon and chases Slim the cook (Jack Van Evera) up a tree. The Colonel decides that eight years of intermittent bear sightings is enough and heads out to take care of Wahb once and for all.
The Colonel stumbles around the woods for a while, finally catching up with Wahb just as he’s winning a rematch with his old rival grizzly from the honey tree. The newly crowned king of the grizzlies attacks, sending the Colonel tumbling into a ravine. Moki turns up and again speaks to Wahb in Cree, calming him down and sending him on his way. Moki helps the Colonel and they watch the bear marking his territory from a safe distance. The Colonel still isn’t convinced that Wahb won’t be back and raises his rifle to shoot but Moki has already removed the bullets. Finally persuaded that this bear really, truly means a lot to his friend, the Colonel agrees to let Wahb go and live his life in peace.
King Of The Grizzlies isn’t the best Disney nature adventure but it’s far from the worst, either. On the plus side, the movie is beautifully shot. Practically every frame showcases a stunning Canadian landscape suitable for framing in your finest ranger stations and fire lookout towers. The animals are pretty great, too. Some of these movies can get a little sleepy and pastoral but this one at least keeps things moving.
The movie is on shakier ground whenever it goes back to its human costars. The relationship between Moki and the Colonel is probably pretty interesting but nobody seems all that interested in exploring it. Rather than trusting the actors to do their jobs, Hibler’s pushy narrator tells us whatever details he decides are relevant. It’s like no one had the heart to tell him that his services would be required less in a movie about people.
The film also appears to have been shot MOS (that’s without synchronized sound, for those of you who didn’t go to film school). What little dialogue there is was added in post-production, which gives those scenes the feel of a late-period Godzilla sequel. You never really feel any connection between Moki and Wahb. You just have to take Hibler’s word for it that it exists. It feels like there’s an interesting movie to be made from this material. But Hibler and his team of writers never quite find it.
King Of The Grizzlies was Disney’s first release of the 1970s, hitting theatres on February 11, 1970. It did…well, I don’t really know how it did at the box office, to be honest with you. I can’t find any receipts listed on the usual box office tabulating sites. But considering that it isn’t currently available on Disney+ or Blu-ray and I’ve never met any ravenous King Of The Grizzlies superfans, I doubt it packed ‘em in.
By now, the True-Life Fantasy format had already run its course but Disney wasn’t quite ready to give up on the hybrid subgenre. The 1970s were very much the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” decade at the studio, returning time and again to previously successful formulas that Walt liked with increasingly diminishing returns. Both Winston Hibler and screenwriter Jack Speirs will be back in this column and they’ll be bringing some more animals along with them. Prepare accordingly.
VERDICT: Despite some redeeming features, this teeters into Disney Minus territory.