3 / 5 stars
When Disney resurfaced its deep legacy of nature-related documentaries about seven years ago, it was a noble, admirable pursuit. Not only does the effort add family-friendly G-rated films into theaters (always a good thing), but it also gives a deep nod to Walt himself, who adored nature shorts and produced many for his TV audience in the 1950s and 60s. The beauty to a film like Bears – besides its glorious cinematography – is its connection to the Disney past. The problem is that time has worn down just how unique these viewing experiences can be. Between the Discovery Channel and science museums’ IMAX theaters, this stuff is fairly available. So Disney needs to up the ante. (Click on the movie poster for a closer look.)
Their approach, at least for Bears, Disneynature’s ninth release, is to get cutesy. That works for kids, but adults may find it pressing their patience after a while.
The story revolves around a mother bear and two cubs, out for their first post-hibernation journey as a family. We know we’re headed down a storybook path immediately when narrator John C. Reilly (an odd, friendly, nasally choice) introduces the sleeping bears as Sky, Scout and Amber – swiftly eliminating one layer of documented reality.
Other animals are given names, personalities and motivations, and the tale has such a scripted form, you tend to wonder how aggressively the film’s editors played with the authentic sequence of their footage to keep younger viewers involved. After an alpha male bear and conniving fox are brought into the menagerie mix, Bears feels more like a wildlife version of The Jungle Book than a nature documentary.
But the landscape and photography are regularly astounding, and that should be enough to hold most adults’ attention for the film’s 75 minutes. Veteran Disneynature director Alastair Fothergill and his African Cats partner, Keith Scholey, have the enviable combination of a sharp eye and impeccable patience. The pair and their team tracked the bears through parts of Alaska’s Katmai National Park, and the film’s closing credits gives you a good idea as to the adventure – oh, and serious craziness – that runs through these people’s veins.
Experienced nature editor Andy Netley has perfected the process of presenting much of the action at less than full speed, while snippets of audio (terrain, water splashes, roars) appear to perfectly synch up with the visuals. The slower playback allows us to see an incredible level of detail we probably couldn’t otherwise – and the overall presentation makes it easy to forget that there’s a lag to the reality.
But beyond the visual feast, I started to question whether Sky and her cubs were actually having such trouble finding ample food for the upcoming winter season. They seemed to be hitting hurdles at every turn, not unlike a fictional story that puts the protagonist in peril to the very last. Did other bears experience the same? Are Fothergill and Scholey taking creative license to sustain their story? If so, does it take away from the challenges bears are facing in the wild?
If you’re watching Bears with younger children, the answer may not matter because the film is fairly rewarding one. But to appeal to a larger audience, Disneynature may want to add some maturity to their documentary series.