Disneynature films are not for the faint of heart. The entertaining and educational series has consistently placed a premium on absolute veracity – even when it comes with a very palatable and painful cost. The last Disneynature film, Chimpanzee, was built almost entirely on tragedy, as it centered on a young chimp (adorably named Oscar) who struggled to survive after the sudden death of his mother. The film’s very plotline was centered around death – a natural and normal death, but death nonetheless – and the entire film was a steady mix of the sad and the joyful (Oscar is eventually taken under the furry arm of an unexpected surrogate parent – another male chimp). Back in 2011, death also hung thick over African Cats, with one plotline following a cheetah mom who eventually loses two of her five cubs to hunting hyenas, and another chronicling an aging lioness who must abandon her own cub to her pride after getting injured and feeling compelled to sneak off to die alone.
Yet, for all the tears that Disneynature aficionados are seemingly doomed to shed (and, man, are you doomed to shed them), the films are also fiercely satisfying in ways that are hard to replicate in the majority of purely fictional, human-based settings. Yes, you’re going to cry, but damn if it’s not worth it. The latest Disneynature film, Bears, is no different than its predecessors – in fact, it’s the best of an already very fine bunch.
As is so often the case with Disneynature films, the level of access afforded to directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey is simply unfathomable. Bears traces a season in the life of an Alaskan bear family – mama bear Skye and shockingly adorable twins Scout and Amber (and, yes, it’s understood that these are animals and not meant to be admired for their perceived cuddliness, but good luck getting to know Scout and Amber and not feeling as if they are the two most precious bear cubs to ever life) – and the intimacy and closeness Fothergill and Scholey are allowed when it comes to the bears is boggling. Bears could play out without a snip of narration or a smidge of music or even anything resembling a narrative, and the footage alone would be mind-bending.
However, the film does have narration and music and even its very own clearly laid out storyline, the kind that shapes up into a deeply compelling and immersive experience for its audience. The film doesn’t make any bones about Skye and the cubs’ situation – the first year is the hardest for bear cubs, and nearly half of them don’t make it to their second. John C. Reilly’s narration (which is often incredibly funny and consistently wonderful, this is voice casting at its best) drives the point home early, but it’s not really something we need to hear, simply because it’s fairly obvious how many obstacles and threats await the cubs out in the world. Skye, tasked with caring for two babies, has double the trouble on her hands.
When the three venture out into the world after the long winter, it’s absolutely exhilarating – but it’s also terrifying. The film does, however, strike a fine balance between levity and terror, and there are plenty of amusing bear hijinks to counter out the heavier moments. Scout and Amber are charming and very funny, and Skye is a wonderfully adept mother (and also just kind of a badass). The bond between them is clear in every frame of the film, and that we get to experience it, even far removed by the boundaries of cinema, is nothing short of inspiring and incredibly satisfying.
Despite a slim 77-minute runtime, the film effectively chronicles the very important post-hibernation hunting season. After emerging from their snowy cave, Skye and the twins trek across the mountains to a traditional feeding spot, a stretch of meadow and a spread of beach that comes with their own dangers, along with the promise of some very important meals. As the summer winds on with no trace of the salmon, infighting begins to become all too commonplace – even the lady bears are battling – and the danger continues to rise for our three stars. (And, yes, there are plenty of dicey moments to drive the tension onwards.)
The film is visually stirring even when it’s not focused on the eponymous bears, as it features stunning and stark snowy vistas, appealing stretches of sandy beach, and a handful of time-lapse tide changes that are just as educational as they are lovely to look at. Disneynature films have always possessed a high degree of technical proficiency and craftsmanship, and Bears is no different. Together with its educational and emotional storyline and indelibly great (and furry) characters, Bears is the finest Disneynature film yet, a supremely satisfying feature that offers something for your entire (tear-stained) family.
The Upside: An engaging story, stunning and truly unbelievable access, beautiful cinematography, charming characters, and a steady mix of humor and heartbreak.
The Downside: Like, a lot of salmon die. It’s good that the film is not called Salmon, because that would be one hell of a tragedy.
On the Side: The film was mainly shot at the Katmai National Park and Preserve, which has an estimated bear population of about 2,200.