There's very likely a special place in hell for anyone who dares criticize a Disneynature feature documentary.
And yet, here we are.
Releasing exclusively on Disney+ on Earth Day, Disneynature's latest documentary Polar Bear serves up the usual impeccable Disneynature visuals enough. alongside the also usual Disneynature faux storyline that promises an engaging, entertaining storyline to keep the kiddoes happy and the adults pleased
The only problem is that this time around Disneynature fails to deliver. Don't get me wrong. There's nothing particularly wrong with the always stellar camera work of co-director Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson, the team behind the successful Penguins. It's just that this time around there's nothing particularly exciting that happens along the way, one obligatory scene of peril the exception, and the narrative provided by writer David Fowler and delivered with as much faux emotion (Is that Fauxmotion?) as possible by two-time Academy Award® nominee Catherine Keener simply can't find excitement where there is none.
You may be saying to yourself "Oh Richard, you just hate polar bears. You beast of a human being!"
No, silly. I don't hate polar bears. I mean, I can't say I love polar bears. I can't say I'd want to like snuggle with a polar bear or anything like that. Isn't that the usual impact of a Disneynature doc? You find yourself wanting to hunt down whatever animal is featured and give it a big ole' hug?
Polar Bear didn't make me want to hug a polar bear.
That's probably for the best.
The truth is I've long been a devotee of Disneynature docs and Polar Bear was one of my more highly anticipated releases from this first half of 2022. It's also proven to be one of my major disappointments early in the year.
What can I say? I was bored.
I adore Catherine Keener with every fiber of my being. However, the narration for Polar Bear comes across with nary a variation in tone, pacing, or emotional resonance. Playfulness sounded like gravity sounded like potential tragedy sounded like fear sounded like love.
You get the point.
Even the marketing for Polar Bear is a bit off-point as it notes the film is about "a new mother whose memories of her own youth prepare her to navigate motherhood in the increasingly challenging world that polar bears face today."
Beyond the obvious challenge, or maybe it's a spiritual gift, of interpreting polar bear memories, the entirety of Polar Bear is actually told through the lens of one of the two polar bear cubs featured in the film. While the mother's adventure is certainly central to all the goings on, Polar Bear is told through the lens of the cub and not actually the mother.
Fine point? Absolutely, but it's a point I had much time to consider in a story that didn't deviate much from the basic storyline of searching for food, climate change is causing the ice to melt, there's danger all around, and then searching for food again.
In a perfect, non-pandemic world we'd all likely be watching Polar Bear on an IMAX screen - its intended setting and the setting where the beauty of its vision would most likely come to life. Disney+ is a wonderful streaming platform, but a film like Polar Bear deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Those who love polar bears will unquestionably appreciate Polar Bear and those who embrace all things Disneynature will still find much to appreciate in the pristine imagery and remarkable lensing that unfolds.
However, I actually am one of those people who embraces all things Disneynature and I can't deny that I simply found Polar Bear a notch below the usual Disneynature feature. While I've always found the idea of a narrative tale a little distracting, with Polar Bear the narrative tale distracts from what would otherwise be a beautiful and mesmerizing documentary. There's an important story to tell here, though it feels like the devastating impact of climate change on polar bears takes a back seat to a narrative storyline that is, if we're being honest, simply made up. There's so much substance to be found within this film, yet it's been reduced, at least somewhat, to a formulaic documentary where the impact is also reduced from "I care about polar bears and want to save them" to "Awww, aren't they cute?"
I wanted more and typically Disneynature manages to deliver.
This time around, Polar Bear simply doesn't deliver the substance that these polar bears actually deserve.
On the plus side, given its release on Disney+ rather than theatrically this may very well be the Disneynature documentary that gets the attention all of the Disneynature have deserved. From the comfort of our own homes, we can sit back and enjoy Fothergill and Wilson's capturing of one of nature's more mysterious and at-risk animals. Then, hopefully, you'll take the time to work your way through the remainder of the awe-inspiring Disneynature filmography.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic