The forest floor quakes and the mountains quiver as a supernaturally giant bear rises up from the underground. The pine trees growing on his back toss as he shakes his grey-brown coat. Then the bear strolls through the Scandinavian landscape among majestic mountains.
“There is something raw and unpolished about Nordic nature and the Nordic drawing tradition. We have tried to translate that into the film.”
Primordial forces are unleashed in Esben Toft Jacobsen's new animated feature, "The Great Bear". Forces springing from an animistic natural world, as well as from the relationship between the story's two sibling protagonists, Jonathan, 11, and Sophie, 6. The film takes the two kids through a gamut of powerful and conflicted sibling emotions – jealousy, tenderness, admiration, hatred and love.
Jonathan and Sophie are spending the summer with their kindly grandfather in his house deep in the woods when odd and wonderful things start happening all around, reflecting as well the wilderness of their own emotions. There are both challenges and help to be found in this enchanted natural world inhabited by fantastical creatures as well as a menacing, vengeful hunter.
No Green Glitter
Nordic landscapes and storytelling traditions are wellsprings of inspiration for Jacobsen who spent many childhood vacations in Sweden.
"The magic and mythology of Nordic tales is generally linked to nature. You won't find any fake green glitter here. What you do get is a rock that moves, a giant wolf and trees that come alive in a dark, mysterious pine forest. I think it all comes down to how much there is to marvel at in nature," the Danish director says.
"Animistic, fantastical natural worlds are also found in Tove Jansson's "Moomins" or Astrid Lindgren stories like "The Brothers Lionheart" and "Ronia the Robber's Daughter". I was deeply fascinated by those stories as a child. There's a duality to them – they are forbidding and alluring, comforting and scary, all at once. When the adaptations were shown on TV, I used to hide behind the chair, but at the same time I had to watch. I thought being a film director was pure magic. I couldn't imagine how I would ever get to become one," the 33-year-old director smiles.
Intense Sibling Bond
Yet he did. Graduating in animation directing from the National Film School of Denmark in 2006, he went on to make a string of short animated films,among them the funny and dramatic "Having a Brother" (2006), which earned him a Special Mention in Berlin. Running just eight minutes, the film is a paradigm of tight, precise storytelling and, like "The Great Bear", it deals with sibling rivalry. In fact, several of his films take up that theme.
"It's interesting to do films about kids, because kids experience everything so intensely. A single day can stretch out endlessly and be crammed with impressions. Sibling relationships are exciting to explore, because they involve such powerful and unruly emotions. And they are so conflicted. It's confusing to love and hate at the same time. When I was a kid, my older brother and I could really fight sometimes. I remember the day when I realized that we actually had a use for each other. That was a real epiphany."
Pine Trees on its Back
"The Great Bear" in several ways extends a classic Nordic storytelling tradition. It has mythical beasts and animistic nature – and a story with teeth that children can relate to.
"There has to be something at stake in the story and it's okay if things gets scary. As long as everything is tied up at the end, the story is welcome to take us to the edge of the abyss," Jacobsen says.
"There is no clear distinction between good and evil in "The Great Bear". As there isn't in real life. My ambition is to tell a story that entertains but has no obvious outcome and you sense there are many more layers behind what you see and hear.
" A central vision is the enormous bear that gives the film its title. It plays a pivotal role in the story when Sophie befriends it despite its fearsome size. "A bear is exciting because it's a dual creature. It's both cute and terrifying, cuddly teddy bear and savage predator. And, it's the epitome of a Nordic animal," he says.
"In the film, the bear is neither good nor bad. It's simply a force of nature. It was part of the premise for me and my co-scripter Jannik Tai Mosholt that we wanted to do a film in the Nordic tradition. One of the first things that happened when I thought ‘Nordic tale' was that I pictured this bear lumbering out of the woods. Huge, with pine trees growing on its back. And we've held on to that image throughout the production. It's part of the landscape, a real mythical beast."
Scratchy and Painterly
Miyazaki springs to mind when you watch "The Great Bear". The film's imaginative universe and unexpected goings-on put the audience on shaky ground. It's miles apart from the conventional American meta-narrative. Indeed, Jacobsen counts Miyazaki among his idols. In general, these days he gets more cinematic inspiration from looking to Russia and Asia.
"Above all, it's important to be faithful to the storytelling tradition we're coming from that feels ‘real' to us. Visually, we made an effort to get away from the slick look of most animated films. There is something raw and unpolished about Nordic nature and the Nordic drawing tradition. We have tried to translate that into the film by avoiding slick surfaces. It should be scratchy and painterly. There has to be visual traction.
" To achieve the film's unique look, Jacobsen and his team employed a lot of different animation techniques – cutout, paint and CGI. Combining them all was a complex process for the director and his team, working closely together.
"There was no outsourcing. We were sitting within a few metres of each other most of the time we were working on the film. It was important to me that everyone on the team had a clear sense of my vision for the film and that we were always able to communicate about it"