With Bears, the Disneynature label renews its annual (2013 was skipped) release of an Earth Day nature documentary. This time around we get to spend half a year with a female brown bear and her two cubs as they experience their first Alaskan summer.
As always, the photography is beautiful with great shots of the Alaska wilderness to go with plenty of bears, some crows, and a persistent wolf. The problem is, however, is that bears don't appear to actually do a whole lot.
The film begins with them waking up from hibernation in a mountainside den, making the long walk down to the coast and valley floors where they'll eat a lot, and then go back up the mountain to hibernate again. Yes, bear cubs are cute when they ride on mom's back. Yes, they're cute when they get a clam stuck on a claw. Yes, they're very cute when they get up on hind legs to walk around and kind of look like they're waving at the camera. But nothing much happens, and there isn't really much of an educational component to the film unless you're young enough to not know that bears hibernate and like to eat fish (but will settle for grass, berries, and mussels).
That would seem to be a risk of the enterprise though. Everybody has to commit to a year filming bears ahead of time and then produce a movie regardless of what actually happens during that year. It's not like they can script a tearful cub death or arrange for the soul of some nearby human residents to end up in a couple of bears so that the resulting hijinx can be captured.
So: video of bears wandering around. More of them eating some fish. Then some wandering.
For the most part the things that happen in the movie aren't shown, but told. The narration provided by John C. Reilly alternates between light humorous asides about what is seen on screen (best moment being the above-mentioned clam), talking as if he were the bear itself explaining its motivation, and describing context for what's on screen that may or may not be what is actually going on. Not so much scripting, as implying.
So when we're told that the bears were lucky to avoid an avalanche, nothing on screen ever really shows us that—it is just John C. Reilly telling us. Or when it is feared that one of the cubs came to a bad end, that again is not on screen, but just suggested by narration and editing. This is good in that it makes it seem like something is happening. It is bad in that it often anthropomorphizes things in a way that may not be justified.
The film does move crisply along, however, coming in at a child-friendly 77 minutes—and there are certainly worse ways to spend a weekend afternoon. If you are going to go see it, consider seeing it right away. If you see it during opening week, Disney will make a donation to the National Parks Foundation. As always the credits begin to roll with footage of the documentarians themselves, which is always fun to watch and see just how close they got to these wild bears and the complexity of moving their equipment around.
[Editor's note: Disneynature's official website for the film offers more information about the film, as well as bears, and includes an educator's guide.]
- Bears is Disneynature/Walt Disney Pictures release.
- Wide theatrical release on Thursday, April 18
- Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey
- Narrated by John C. Reilly
- Running time: 77 minutes
- Rated G
- Alex's rating: 7 out of 10