Since 2009’s Earth, Disney’s nature documentary division has done a fine job forgetting about anthropomorphized animated animals and offering some delightful looks at the everyday life of the creatures that inspired their company’s best films. The formula is not fading, either, as 2014’s entry, Bears, arrives just in time to make you forget about the annoyances of computer-generated animals in recent films like The Nut Job and Rio 2.
Bears has the bare necessities that any fan of the studio’s nature docs expect: a stunning environment, a riveting survivalist plot and very, very cute animals. It also has John C. Reilly taking up duties as the doc’s playful narrator, and none of the film is soured by preachy environmentalist overtones.
The doc tells the story of a mama brown bear, Sky, and her oh-so-adorable young cubs Scout and Amber, as they trek through the Alaska Peninsula after a winter in hibernation and try to survive through a salmon shortage. As Reilly informs us at the start, half of all bear cubs do not make it through their first year. The cubs can only live if the mother has stored up enough fat to feed them – and if she does not capture enough fish to keep her replenished, her family can starve. While Bears has its moments of wholesome, G-rated sweetness, it is hard to forget that these creatures are trying their damndest to hold on to their lives. It adds heavy suspense to what could have been a limp montage of wildlife creatures.
There is little question that Reilly’s energetic voice-over is meant to resonate with young kids, but his readings never condescend to them like a presumptuous, too enthusiastic Kindergarten teacher. He mixes the excitable inner conscious of the boisterous Scout and some of the laughably lazy peripheral bears with a more serious tone to let audiences understand Sky’s maternal concern for finding food for her pack. (This being a traditional Disney film, though, there is no mention of a papa bear, which is a bit jarring.)
At points, one wishes the team responsible for writing the narration had given Reilly less, as the film tries to provide audio explanations for close to each of the bears’ actions or reactions. On the bright side, Reilly has just the gumption and energy to make some of the interior monologues work, despite their gratuity. His play-by-play commentary does turn repetitive, though. As welcome as Reilly’s voice is, it gets to a point where you wish that Disney could have just let the images speak for themselves.
One of Bears’ biggest successes is how it weaves a humanist story that can resonate with families. The interplay between the mischievous Scout, who has no problem abandoning his mother to frolic in the ocean, and the more hesitant Amber, who rarely leaves her mom’s side, feels very true to the behaviours of young children to their mom. There are real stakes to this family affair, and although a few moments are played for laughs and amusement, it is hard to shake the survivalist instincts of the characters. In one frightening moment, Sky takes the risk to leave her cubs ashore so she could fish, leaving her month-old cubs to stand their ground if a more venomous animal shows up.
Bears does not come equipped with a 3D release, although it definitely could have. Directed by African Cats‘ Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scoley, the doc features some spectacular scenery, unaided by digital effects or animation. From a tense avalanche that engulfs a mountain to a sublime slow-motion montage of salmon flying up from a rapid-filled river into the mouths of hungry animals, the footage dazzles without overwhelming the story, which runs short of 80 minutes. These stunning shots of the placid Alaska Peninsula are even more thrilling when doubled with George Fenton’s uplifting, symphonic score.
The major obstacle these bears have to overcome is a fading salmon population, not Sarah Palin and her rifle. However, Bears does not need to overstate how overfishing is an issue that affects animal habitats, ridding the film of any bombastic environmental agenda. Its story is intimate yet universal – a mother trying to raise her family – and with some sweeping, gorgeous wildlife photography, it is realized beautifully. Like another popular story about three bears, Disney’s new Earth Day-catered doc is not too hard with its tense, life-or-death predicament and not too soft with montages of beautiful brown bear cubs looking adorable. It is just right.