By Tony Allen
“We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one.”
The famous couplet from Michael Rosen’s classic children’s picture book is ingrained in the memories of scores of people, young and old. Unfortunately, the recent festive cartoon adaptation leaves much to be desired in comparison to the book, mainly because it tries to deal with far too much and fails at its fundamental purpose of providing entertainment.
If you didn’t watch it then I’m sorry to have to break this to you, but We’re Going on a Bear Hunt has been tragically desecrated and I was shocked by what I saw.
If you’re going to make a children’s story ‘adult’, you have to do it properly and this adaptation, animated not dissimilarly to The Snowman and shown at primetime on Christmas Eve, is therefore never going to fulfil this task. Of course, any picture book would need padding out to fill twenty-odd minutes of screen time. But the TV version just doesn’t seem to know who its target audience is.
The whole first part of the adaptation is new, in which the parents of the family leave, and it is truly woeful. It feels as if everything added to this adaptation is a metaphor. The new hero of the story, the second eldest sibling in a large nuclear family, is let down by every independent male she encounters. Her parents desert her to deal with the mechanical ineptitude of the grandmother, even when their own children need their help the most.
Later, our protagonist’s ham-fisted elder brother fails to listen to her sensitive pleas to stay with her new bear friend and forces her away from the bear. Her brother’s unwelcome intervention leaves both girl and bear perpetually miserable; isolated and lonely with precious little hope of change.
She is also let down by her grandmother who more or less tells her that she is destined to be unhappy, as passive misery is part and parcel of life. This is despite the fact that it is her grandmother who is culpable for the root of the problems by calling away the girl’s parents and leaving her in her brother’s less than capable hands.
The animated characters are so stereotypical they may as well have come from an age or gender studies textbook. Old woman can’t manage with car. Adult children come running to help. Eldest brother takes charge. Girl just sits back and follows. Aren’t these concepts becoming a bit worn out now? The story has been changed, but it hasn’t been modernised.
You can’t help but wonder if the bear is used as an elaborate animalistic metaphor for EU economic migrants in the wake of Brexit. We are the comfortable, middle class family, and we’re happy to go and visit them in their own habitat, but as soon as they pass through the threshold of ‘our’ territory, they somehow turn into a threat that must be kept out at all costs.
While using different mediums to highlight and call out the twin scourges of the patriarchy and our dog-eat-dog, selfish, capitalist society would normally be a positive move, in a seasonal adaptation meant for children, this is somewhat excessive.
The long and the short of it is that an albeit cautionary tale of a fun family adventure is turned into one of neglect, pure and simple. Let’s not even talk about the borderline criminal treatment of the poor baby.
Of course, the original story was no bed of roses. But, crucially, the bear is never personified, and is certainly never explicitly called “friendly”- it is an unarguable adversary, not a character offered up to us as a potential ‘goodie’, that is then cruelly whipped away.
Granted, perhaps the themes I have discussed are present for those who want to find them, but in nowhere near as obvious a way. I can enjoy the book, as a form of escapism, as much now as when I was a child. I’m not so sure that would have been the case with the animated version – a thought borne out by the reactions of some bemused parents on social media.
Along with its good animation, the score, which includes George Ezra’s theme song Me & You, is one of the redeeming features of this badly planned adaptation. But Channel 4 even spectacularly dropped the ball here, overlaying their continuity announcer above Ezra’s song on the closing credits and rendering it unlistenable, consequently depriving many of the sole aspect they tuned in and sat through the soul-destroying narrative for.
The genius of the book lies in its simplicity. The repetition, the onomatopoeia, the simple yet vivid adjectival descriptions mean that it is more about the reader than the characters. Therefore, it serves its purpose as a children’s story with an intended audience of those influenced more by the Teletubbies than Karl Marx or Simone de Beauvoir. If I was Rosen, I would be ashamed to have sullied the reputation of my masterpiece twenty-seven years later by volunteering to narrate this shambles. The animation is completely devoid of joy and for this reason I would far rather any children I knew stuck firmly to the book.
All in all, the increased complexity of the screen version ruins the story. There is not even a hint of a resolution or a happy ending, either for the story or for the little girl’s future in a world where she seems fated to be controlled, cheated and denied autonomy forever. This programme left a bitter taste in my mouth, because it is a con and not what we want to see on our screens at this time of year.
But, hey, maybe I’m just overthinking things. My New Year’s resolution is to get out more…
Image from Flickr