We adult critics sometimes forget that, on rare occasions, certain films aren’t actually made for us. Sure, we are asked to review them, to step into this so-called foreign frame of reference and relate, but as stated before, we really aren’t supposed to get it. The people behind the scenes just don’t expect us to connect, be it as a race, gender, or age bracket. Granted, as part of our profession, we are constantly asked to sit in the place of the proposed demo and determine its worth. It’s not only hard, it’s often impossible.
A perfect example of this is the latest Disneynature documentary, ‘Bears.‘ Previous installments in this House of Mouse reboot (the company won Oscars way back when for their similarly styled ‘True Life Adventure’ series) have offered a bit of danger and scope – just enough to keep adults engaged. We’ve visited various places on the Earth, traveled the deepest recesses in the ocean, and focused on creators both lethal (‘African Cats’) and friendly (‘Chimpanzee’). This time around, we’re in a wildlife petting zoo filled with awkwardly anthropomorphized bears and it’s all about the wee ones.
The story (yes, this nature doc is actually outfitted with a narrative, brought to vivid life by the voice-over work of John C. Reilly) centers on Mama Sky and her two cute as a commercial release cubs, Amber and Scout. These Grizzlies have just ended their winter hibernation and are heading down the mountain to Summer in the meadow. Along the way, they have to avoid avalanches, alpha males, and the always concerning aspect of their existence – finding food. Eventually, they travel to a place where there’s a supposed abundance of salmon. If they don’t find it, or if the fish aren’t running, they face a long, and hungry, season.
As a vision of unspoiled wilderness, ‘Bears’ is breathtaking. Shot in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and overloaded with gorgeous nature footage, this is the kind of film you can watch with the sound turned down and still get an amazing visual experience. From the dense fur of our “heroes” to the lush valleys and snow-dappled mountains, there are some awe inspiring images in abundance. In fact, muting this movie is the best option less you want to be inundated with twee, third grade level pandering. Indeed, ‘Bears’ substitutes actual reality for cloying contrivance and coincidence. Sure, the arrival of big bad male bruins Magnus and Chinook is supposed to signal a bit of underage angst, but since this is Disney, there’s never any real level of fear.
In fact, back in the day, the House of Mouse didn’t mind showing the truth about our quadruped brethren. However, in today’s predisposed PC discourse, children cannot be “traumatized” to such an extent. Add in a reflective reciprocity which argues “cuter the animal, the less cinematic stress,” and Walt’s workers make damn sure that we aren’t exposed to anything harsh or horrific. Granted, no one is asking to scar the kiddies for life, but ‘Bears’ makes it seem like, with a little luck, horrific carnivores can be easily outsmarted. While Reilly tries his best to imbue the material with a sense of genuine menace, we recognize almost instantly that there will be a hint of danger, but not much more.
The rest is just unrealistic portraits of bears as snuggly little cuddle-bugs all stuffed with fluff. Just one look at Amber and Scout and the heart instantly melts. Of course, the cynic in me wants to fault the film for being too safe and saccharine, but then again I remember being raised on similarly minded material, travelogues and nature walks where all the badness was filtered out so that all I got was a developing brain full of fun and frolic. Of course, ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’ would, every Sunday night, scan the corporate vaults for some broadcast material and usually wound up showcasing stories about lost dogs, cowardly mountain lions, and disenfranchised donkeys. They had an impact. Today’s youth apparently can’t cope.
Still, Disney deserves kudos for a nice digital package. The Blu-ray is sharp and colorful, the sound and image really maximized by the high definition format. As for added content, we are treated to a series of featurettes. One highlights the Alaskan backdrop while another hopes to educate about the bears themselves. We also get a couple of behind the scenes overviews explaining how certain shots were achieved while someone named Olivia Holt (?) provides a music video for her song, “Carry On.”
At the end of the day, ‘Bears’ delivers, if only for the demographic it was created and aiming for in the first place. Adults may wish there was more of an authentic life lesson here, but for the most part, the moppets won’t mind. Not one bit.