At first it was the way the bears were stacked atop each other that appealed to me. I’d see ads for We Bare Bears while watching other shows and think, “That is adorable/charming/cute/appealing.” Their shape, the color arrangement. Just the whole stacking thing. But one weekend shortly after the 2016 election, I made myself chocolate chip pancakes and decided I’d watch an episode of this bear cartoon and see what was what. I ended up spending the day watching episode after episode of We Bare Bears. My first episode—or at least the one that I remember most clearly—was, “The Demon.” In it, Ice Bear and his friend Chloe Park face the terror of the neighbor’s little dog after Chloe accidentally loses her hoody to the fiend. It is nicely done with Chekov’s potato gun appearing in the first act appearing again in the third. It has elements that I most like about the show at its best: A reliance on character to drive the plot, conflict and action; diverse characters; a careful calculus around consequences; appropriate stakes; and, resolutions that tend toward ending in a better place than the episode began. These elements aren’t easy to pull off, especially in an eleven minute episode.
In We Bare Bears, three bear bros, Grizz, Panda and Ice Bear, live together in a cave in the woods. We Bare Bears is set in the Bay Area. A lot of cartoons and shows are set supposedly non-specific anywhere or everywhere that only make them seem even more the product a specific place, often, ironically enough, California. But We Bare Bears goes ahead and lets their place be their place and then sees what stories they can tell. You might have suspected from their names that these bears are not biologically related. The bears are a chosen family with Grizz as the oldest brother and Ice Bear as the youngest. And even though Ice Bear is, as he says, “best bear,” all the bears have their own charm.
Grizz is an outgoing and enthusiastic brown bear. His wants to be cool and to have a lot of friends. Sometimes he tries too hard or is too caught up in his own enthusiasm. But he tries hard and when the bears befriend Chloe, he learns some Korean to try be a good friend and maybe to reassure her father and grandmother that being friends with bears is alright. Grizz loves 1980s and 1990s action movies and has made a couple of his own “Crowbar Jones” shorts, starring himself as Crowbar Jones and “Pando,” a comic relief sidekick clearly inspired by Panda.
Panda, aka, Pan-Pan, is as his name implies, a panda. He’s also an otaku loves anime, manga, Japanese and Korean pop music and K-dramas, though likely not Vampire Prosecutor, more say, Boys Over Flowers and those body-switching romantic dramas, like Secret Garden (2010). Panda loves the idea of being in a relationship, but it’s probably a good thing he isn’t. He has a waifu body pillow named Miki-chan. Panda is intensely involved online hoping for likes and shares and trying to meet his true love. He’s an otaku who doesn’t read or speak much Japanese or Korean. He’s allergic to everything and is vegetarian while his brothers love meat. Panda is sweet and sensitive but also capable of becoming resentful to the point of supervillainy.
Ice Bear always refers to himself as “Ice Bear,” except that one time he was conked on his noggin and started wearing a man-bun and hanging out with tech bros. His room is the bears’ refrigerator, where he knits and watches figure skating. Ice Bear was nonverbal as a cub and his affect does not necessarily reflect what he is feeling on the inside. Ice Bear comes across as neurodivergent and probably on the autism spectrum.
Ice Bear is clearly the coolest and arguably as he claims, “best bear.” He has what Grizz and Napoleon Dynamite would call, “skillz.” He speaks Russian, Korean, Pigeon and, I expect, many more languages. He likes axes, throwing stars, martial arts, salsa dancing, cooking, knitting and making robots. Ice Bear also has a secret life his brothers don’t know about. One revealed particularly in two episodes that are influenced by Drive (2011), general Nicolas Winding Refn-ness and by John Wick, “Icy Nights” and “Icy Nights II.”* The song playing when Ice Bear enters the city in “Icy Nights” recalls “Nightcall” from the Drive soundtrack.
The bears make friends, though. They befriend Chloe Park, a 12-year-old Korean-American child protege who comes to study them for a college biology course. Chloe is stressed and lonely being the only tween in university. And they are also friends with Ranger Tabes, who reminds me of Rosie the camp director from Lumberjanes. Tabes out for their part of the forest. They made friends with Produce Lucy at the farmer’s market. (Panda developed an unhealthy crush on her). And they are friends with Charlie, a bigfoot voiced by Jason Lee, so I always kind of think he’s Earl from My Name Is Earl. Charlie also hosts the Halloween episodes, each a little horror anthology. (One with a fantastic take on Scooby-Doo). Nom-Nom, an Everyone’s Tube superstar koala with anger management issues, is really more of a frenemy than a friend, but Grizz is always there for him. In “Nom-Nom,” Nom-Nom sets Grizz and Panda up in a dangerous situation so that he can rescue them and create a new viral video that will put him back on top as the internet’s “cutest star.” In a show with such a concern with appropriate consequences, Nom-Nom is almost a perfect villain. And in a show with an evident belief that anyone can make mistakes and anyone can regret them and do better, Nom-Nom is again more frenemy than supervillain even with his radio-controlled sharks.
We Bare Bears has some superficial similarities with Polar Bear Cafe, which also features a polar/ice bear, panda and grizzly bear–as well as a llama, sloth and penguin. Polar Bear Cafe‘s Panda is obsessed with being cute. Like Ice Bear, Polar Bear is responsible and can drive a car. I enjoy his attempts to teach Penguin to drive.
There is a grizzly bear who gets most of his clothes from the Harley-Davidson store. But Polar Bear runs a cafe. There are a lot of puns. And the show skews towards a younger audience. That said, I think We Bare Bears make a little nod to Polar Bear Cafe with the “Coffee Cave” episode, in which the bears turn their cave into a cafe. Ice Bear becomes a barrista to facilitate Grizz hanging with cool people and Panda tries to make time with a woman he thinks is cute.
I enjoy We Bare Bears‘ references to film, tv, games, comics and cartoons and even Walt Whitman. When the bears work “shushing the unshushable” in an Oakland cineplex, there are a slew of film references that would warm the heart of the most cantankerous cinephile. In another episode, the bears recall films like Phase IV (1974) and Empire of the Ants (1977) as they obey the wishes of a queen bee.
Panda is pursued by a virtual reality Doof Warrior from Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). And there’s a bit from the beginning of Quincy Jones’ Ironside theme in “Bear Cleanse” when someone is secretly eating cake and in “Return of Craboo,” when the bears encounter an erstwhile pet. It might’ve been taken from Kill Bill (2003) or from Lo Lieh dangerous fists in King Boxer/ Five Fingers of Death (1972). Grizz knows it from Kill Bill, but Ice Bear definitely recognizes it from King Boxer. I like that the creators are using art that they like. And art that I like, too.
While the structure is episodic, there is no total reset at the end of every episode. “Icy Nights,” for example, uses a number of elements from earlier episodes—Ice Bear’s modified roomba, for example. And human characters who are almost doppelgangers of the bears, Tom, Isaac and Griff, appear first in “Panda’s friend” and then in two more episodes, “Bro Brawl” and “The Mall.”
The show alternates between episodes featuring the bears in their presumably current adult forms with ones about the bears as cubs. If you must have origin stories, the baby bear episodes provide them and do a pretty good job. The baby bear episodes also do a good job of capturing a kids point-of-view. In general, I prefer the adult episodes, but that might be because I am an adult. As always, I don’t begrudge kids’ interests being put before my own in cartoons meant for kids. I do, however, very much enjoy “Los Escandalosos,” in which the baby bears become a tag team in a kids’ lucha libre league in Mexico. There are some sweet luchador names in that episode and mariachis sing a ballad about los Escandalosos. Incidentally, “Escandalosos” is also the Spanish name for the show. I appreciate the pun making the title, “Scandal Bears.” It only took me two days catch it, but I did.
I also appreciate that We Bare Bears rarely translates the Spanish, Korean or Russian in the show. The writers relies on us to understand generally what is going on and not freak out when we don’t understand specifically what is said. There are times when we don’t understand something and that’s okay. I particularly appreciate that while we learn why Ice Bear knows Russian, we don’t see when Ice Bear went from non-verbal to verbal. Neurodiversity isn’t exactly the same kind of plot point as that time a Russian man in the arctic took in Ice Bear. At the same time, if the writers did decide to show the first time Ice Bear spoke, I trust them to do right by him and neurodivergent folk.
The bears are trying to participate in the human world and figure out how they fit into it. They not like they other animals anymore, but that’s okay. Though it might negatively impact their health as they prefer to eat, say, pizza bagels over bamboo and seals. And they’re not quite like humans cause they’re still bears, and that should be okay, but it’s not always.
Daniel Chong talked a bit about how one of the things he was thinking of when creating this show was the ways that this experience paralleled being a minority in America and particularly, racism in America. Sometimes people react negatively to the bears and it’s just those people’s thing, not the bears, though it is particularly distressing to Grizz.**
I mentioned before that I appreciate that whatever shenanigans the bears or a single bears cause or are involved in have appropriately calculated stakes and consequences–and not just in the sense that a cartoon meant for all ages should probably not have a lot of gruesome death in it. The person most responsible for shenanigating takes most of the damage and uninvolved people or innocent people caught up in it are not as subject to the shenanigans.*** And that’s a relief to me. It’s not a cartoon that relies on either the pleasure of someone finally getting what they deserve–one day that Roadrunner will get his/her due!–or on the shock of, say, Ren’s cruelty to Stimpy, Jerry’s cruelty to Tom the Cat or Woody Woodpecker’s flat-out sociopathy.
When the bears dig a cool jean jacket with a tiger on the back out of a dumpster, they get a run of good luck. The luck is low level, but the bears are ecstatic. Ice Bear says, “This is the best thing to happen to Ice Bear” and they all agree. Panda finds money in the pocket. Grizz gets three high fives in a row. Ice Bear finds coupons for salsa dancing lessons.
The rain stops. Streetlights go their way. Pizza bagels are on sale. A cash opens up at the grocery store and they are first in line. But when the jacket’s curse is revealed, it operates on the same level. They each want the jacket for themselves and end up fighting. Joss Whedon’s We Bare Bears would straight up have killed one of them, but instead Panda accidentally punches his own face.
They realize, ‘We’re not wearing this jacket. This jacket is wearing us. We have to get rid of it.” The temptations the jacket uses to try to get them to take it back are things like pizza mistakenly delivered to their house. All of which are stakes and consequences appropriate to the situation. We Bare Bears is about critters and people mostly trying their best and screwing up sometimes. It is a pretty gentle cartoon, though there are both shenanigans and hijinx. It seems to me that in its own way going the chill and gentle route can be more avant-garde than another manic cartoon.
*I see a little Tokyo Drifter in the part where Ice Bear is silhouetted in red, too.
**There is a thing here where I talk a bit about the Prime Directive and the ways that it is kind of butts, but we have bears to discuss.
***This is a more complicated calculation when Panda goes bad in “Braces.”
Carol Borden isn’t going to lie. She kind of covets that jean jacket.