Bears is, for lack of a better way to describe it, an unbearably sweet and lighthearted feature-length documentary from DisneyNature, Disney's Paris-based documentary arm that began in 2008 with Earth and has since then been releasing one nature-themed feature documentary annually here in the United States with an occasional European side project tossed in for good measure. The distributor has released such films as The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, Oceans, African Cats, Wings of Life, and Chimpanzee. Without exception, DisneyNature has come to be known for beautifully photographed nature documentaries with an attention to detail, an eye on entertainment, and an ability to reach a wider audience unlike a good majority of nature documentaries.
With narration by John C. Reilly, he of recent comedies such as Step-Brothers and Anchorman 2, Bears is decidedly light in the information aspects of what it means to be a documentary and quite heavy on the more entertaining and light-hearted aspects. The film starts off with a mama bear, affectionately named Sky for the purposes of broadcast, coming out of hibernation with her two newborn cubs, Scout and Amanda. They then take us on a journey across the Alaskan wild as they head out in search of food and, of course, along the way encounter other wildlife, obstacles, and potential catastrophes before arriving at their destination.
There were times in Bears, despite the relatively light information provided, that I did actually learn things I never knew and never would have guessed about bears. For example, bears eat grass (Who knew?) and apparently bears even consider eating their own species as one of the key conflicts of the film involve Sky's repeatedly having to protect her newborn cubs from much larger and very hungry male bears.
Again, who knew?
If there's a downfall with DisneyNature's Bears, and there is, it's their seemingly insatiable tendency towards anthropomorphism or, for those going "huh?," the tendency to interpret the lives of these bears through decidedly human characteristics. While such an approach was somewhat understandable with Chimpanzee, it's intrusive and even distracting in Bears. Bears feels like much less a documentary than a narrative feature involving bears given that we're practically force-fed a far too cohesive story in which all of the bears, plus one wolf, caught on film have back stories and personality traits that seem borne more out of excessive imagination than actual fact.
In the past, DisneyNature has used such well known names as James Earl Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Stewart, and Meryl Streep to provide narration for its films. In each case, the narration was presented in a way that was strong and emotionally resonant. John C. Reilly, while a fine actor, seems an odd choice to narrate a documentary with his sort of rhythmic speech pattern that lacks both force and emotion. The simple truth is that much of Bears feels cartoonish and far too light to be taken seriously, an impact that I'm fairly sure was not the goal for co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey. Fothergill, who also directed Earth, spent an entire year in Alaska following this bear family and it simply must be painful for him to watch that effort and commitment be reduced to a series of lighthearted one-liners and silly observations.
The cinematography in Bears, on the other hand, is nothing short of mesmerizing and, at times, absolutely endearing. Even without human names and faux traits, these cubs are absolutely adorable and it's an absolute joy watching them try to figure out this thing called life. Fothergill's camera tells a story that the film's narration doesn't begin to tell.
Many considered Chimpanzee to be a noticeable decline in quality for the DisneyNature documentaries, and pretty much everyone considered it to be the weakest film released to date. There's almost no question that such a title now belongs to Bears, a beautifully photographed yet underwhelming documentary-lite that even at a 77-minute running time wears out its welcome as evidenced by the numerous children in the advanced screening I attended who were loudly squirming and talking through the film's final half.
I wonder what we'll get next? Pauly Shore narrating DisneyNature's Weasel?
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic