The new Disneynature film, Bears, involves the usual intimate footage of wild animals in spectacular natural habitats, time-lapse, slow-motion and aerial cinematography, and, as a trade-off, corny anthropomorphic, kid-friendly narration. Though less hard-sell than 2012’s Chimpanzees, Bears is still a case of nature that’s Disneyfied – a story that focuses on an immature male animal, a perilous journey, the triumph of family, all of it told in alternately chucklesome and concerned tones by actor John C. Reilly.
The film, running a brisk 77 minutes, follows almost a year in the lives of a mother brown bear and her two cubs in Katmai National Park in the Alaskan peninsula, an area of stupendous mountains, coastal meadows and rushing streams. Near the coast, hundreds of brown bears gorge on spawning salmon each summer, then return to the higher ground to quasi-hibernate through the winter. The film begins inside one of those mountain dens (the first of many “how did they do that?” moments) where two plush toy-like cubs, Scout and Amber, are first seen nuzzling against a mass of brown fur that is their mother, Sky.
The first journey is the long two-week trek down the mountain (with a break for an avalanche) to the sea level, where the gaunt Sky begins her quest for food to keep her and her cubs alive. In a large meadow, bears gather like a cattle herd, munching the grass while waiting for the salmon to arrive. Bears being bears, it’s not exactly a friendly family reunion: New offspring are in danger of becoming food for the older males.
As with Fothergill and Scholey’s nope Chimpanzees, the template of The Lion King template is never too far away here in the editing of the footage. An early montage shows Scout viewing various male bears’ behaviour to find his “role model.” Other bears include the alpha male, Magnus, who takes food from whomever he wants, and his rival is an “outcast” male named Chinook, who is barely prevented from eating the cubs. Rounding out The Lion King-like cast of characters, there’s a helpful raven who leads Sky to food, and a scavenging wolf, Tikaani, who is judgmentally characterized as a “thief.”
Scout, cute and comical, becomes the default star here, either lagging behind or getting into trouble, while Amber, his sister, simply does a lot of clinging to her mother’s fur. (Are male bear cubs characteristically more adventurous? The film doesn’t say.) While most of the narrative events arise plausibly from the young bears learning to survive, it’s framed in a hokey quest story about Sky’s search for the magical “golden pond,” a paradisl pool, where the salmon are so numerous many bears can gorge and live in harmony.
All this is heartwarming, in a bloody, ursine-centric way (for balance, there should be a companion documentary called Samantha the Salmon Needs to Spawn). Also, for older viewers who have seen Werner Herzog’s hellish documentary, Grizzly Man, it’s impossible to forget that Timothy Treadwell, who treated bears as if they were humans, and was eaten, along with his girlfriend, was killed and eaten by bears in this same park.
Some of the most striking moments in Bears are during the film’s closing credits, when we see how alarmingly close the camera crew was to the animals. We’re reminded us that while the movie Bears is both sweet and humane, the real bears are neither.