Bears doing bear stuff – what more do you want?

Since 2008, Walt Disney’s international studio Disneynature has prided itself on bringing us a documentary that showcases a specific animal and their habitat, emphasizing ideas such as interconnectedness of humans with other animals in addition to iterating the common theme of survival in unpredictable circumstances. These films usually come out around Earth Day, and the studio has gone on to show the lives of chimpanzees, flamingos, African cats, winged-insects, as well as documenting oceans and our own vast planet.

Earth Day 2014 was commemorated by Disneynature with its release of Bears, a documentary centered around a mother grizzly bear and her two bear-cubs, who must make the pilgrimage across Alaska after hibernation to feast on salmon in their own waters. The commute is a treacherous one, even more so when you have two impressionable young cubs clinging to you or even getting left behind in the camaraderie. In addition, there are animal predators out trying to snatch you, your cubs, or your food at any minute, be it other grizzly bears or a wolf who finds himself stalking the bear family.

Directed by
Alastair Fothergill & Keith Scholey
John C. Reilly
Release Date
18 April 2014
Steve’s Grade: B

The journey is rough, exhausting, but necessary for survival knows Sky, the mother grizzly bear we center on, along with her two cubs – the adventurous Scout and the clingy Amber – as they embark on this odyssey to indulge in food. Our narrator, character actor John C. Reilly, details their struggles, while directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey (who worked to give us Disneynature’s “African Cats” just three years ago) show the struggles of the family through crisp and captivating visual beauty.

Fothergill and Scholey employ a vast array of camera angles that show several different things in the wild, using long-shots to detail especially beautiful and scenic landscapes, and tighter, more intimate shots to show the faces of the bears or small salmon and eels swimming in the water. The photography and imagery is gorgeous, and proves that many locations in the world are naturally beautiful and don’t need any tampering from visuals effects artists whatsoever. Then there’s the music choices, whether they be hand-selected bits of orchestra music that help elevate certain scenes, or the film’s theme song – Phillip Phillips’ infectious and beautifully song hit “Home” – the music helps give these gorgeous images life and provides for a wide-range of emotions to flourish.

Reilly, while an unexpected choice but a pleasantly unexpected one, gives us a nice inferred background to these animals, giving them names, personalities based on their actions, and so forth. Reilly and the filmmakers seem to be doing what kids do at the zoo when they visit their favorite exhibit; they paint the animals with their own names, faces, and ideas in a way that bleeds innocence and whimsicality. The only downside is that Disneynature, a company ostensibly existing to give young children and their families a more intimate experience with nature and the science of their favorite animals, lacks in the information department. There’s not a lot of facts or science presented and it’s mostly traded for the writers to emphasize the “villains” of the story or for Reilly to search for a funny one-liner.

Yet there’s an undeniable cuteness factor to Bears that simply doesn’t go unnoticed; seeing it with a friend or someone close to you helps the experience. I saw this with a friend of mine, whom had a wonderful time ad-libbing her own dialog to the showing, while also watching many younger kids create their own narration for the film. This is the kind of film that will spark genial reactions amongst audiences old and young, and truly emphasizes the old cliche but truth of cinema and that it transports one to worlds and locales they’d likely never experience for themselves.

Review by Lead Film Critic, Steve Pulaski