***1/2 (out of 5)
April 18, 2014
John C. Reilly as NARRATOR
Bears as THEMSELVES
Directed by: Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
I have to hand it to Disney. Their slate of Disneynature films are never great money makers. In essence, they’re niche filmmaking efforts that will never top the massive cash cows in the Mouse House. You’ll never see one of these films coming close to the gross of a Marvel movie or a summer tent-pole Pixar film.
Instead, Disneynature films aren’t made to fund the studio. Instead, they’re made to diversify the Disney audience and provide a throw-back to the classic Disney nature documentaries of the past. The Disneynature films remind us that Disney still cares about their smaller brands as well as their legacy of family entertainment.
This is the fifth theatrical Disneynature release, after “Earth,” “Oceans,” “African Cats” and “Chimpanzee.” Co-directed by Alastair Fothergill, who also directed three of the previous four films with various co-directors (including “Bears” partner Keith Scholey, who also helped him with “African Cats”), there’s a lot of similar ground covered. The nature story is sanitized for the G-rated Disney crowd, but that works for what film is trying to accomplish.
“Bears” follows a mother grizzly bear in Alaska and her two cubs when they wake up in the spring after hibernating all winter. We see the cubs grow up at their mothers’ side as they try to find food throughout the warmer months, preparing for another winter.
Like “African Cats” and “Chimpanzee,” this film follows a narrative of wild animals. We have characters given personality by narrator John C. Reilly. The story gets a little contrived at times, borrowing elements that worked in previous films, like rival groups as seen in “Chimpanzee” or villainous loners threatening the young as we saw in “African Cats.” This is expected since the filmmakers are cobbling together a coherent story from hours of raw footage to make a narrative that little kids can follow.
As we saw in previous Disneynature productions, the photography is beautiful in this film, highlighting the gorgeous landscapes that the Alaskan wilderness has to offer. Even though we’re focusing on just one family group of one species, there’s enough drama happening in the fight for survival to make things interesting.
The primary focus of the bears for the year is to fatten up for hibernation by eating wild salmon that swim upstream to spawn. More drama is milked from the routine than is probably really happening, but it gives the story a certain focus.
Of course, from the bears’ point of view, it’s a triumph to finally catch the swimming salmon. I would be curious to see this edited from the salmon’s point of view, however. A first in Disneynature movies, we see quite a bit of eviscerated fish, which would be a horror film for the salmon. However, considering the clear waters help make these scenes almost completely bloodless, as well as the fact that seeing severed fish parts isn’t as disturbing to young children as a cheetah eating a gazelle, it’s still considered family entertainment.
In the end, “Bears” is a sweet, breezy nature film that the entire family can enjoy. It’s not the best of the Disneynature films, but as a whole, these are strong, wholesome documentaries that are routinely beautifully shot and worth checking out.