Bears (United States, 2014)

April 17, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Bears Poster

The first two Disneynature documentaries, 2007's Earth and 2009's Oceans, were visual feasts - amazing experiences made all the more remarkable when blown up for big screen viewing (they were distillations of TV miniseries). Since then, the label has embarked upon less ambitious projects: African Cats in 2011, Chimpanzee in 2012, and now Bears in 2014. If one was to rate Bears solely on the basis of its photography, it would receive an easy "A." But there's more to this film than just striking images, and that's often not a good thing. As with Chimpanzee, the movie's rampant anthropomorphism is a major drawback and John C. Reilly's too-earnest narration is as irritating as a toothache. The "nature" aspects of Bears are undercut by the need to turn this into a live-action Disney cartoon, complete with cuddly heroes and nasty villains.

Bears tells the year-in-the-life story of a mama brown bear and her two cubs. Residents of the Alaskan peninsula, the three animals emerge from their den, make their way down out of the mountains (barely avoiding an avalanche), scour meadows for meager food, become embroiled in territorial conflicts with other bears, and sate themselves on salmon before returning to hibernation. To liven things up, the filmmakers have created names and personalities for many of the bears (and one wolf). Nothing truly upsetting is shown (salmon being devoured alive are referred to as "sushi") and any violent wildlife footage has been scrubbed clean. The G-rating is a testimony to how sanitized Bears is.

No one in their right mind will deny that Bears contains its share of amazing photography. The images of an avalanche captured by co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey are remarkable. Similarly, the salmon run arrests the attention. However, despite its attempts at "Disneyfication," Bears is too sedate to attract the attention of younger children (who may also be frightened by the growling bear-on-bear confrontations) and John C. Reilly's prattling is likely to get on the nerves of many older viewers. The cinematography is big screen but the content is small.

As a narrator, Reilly is an odd choice. His voice lacks the power and resonance of a James Earl Jones (Earth), Samuel L. Jackson (African Cats), or Patrick Stewart (who provided the U.K. voice work for Earth and African Cats). He might have been selected because the narration required someone who could make goofy pronouncements. It's difficult to say whether the biggest problem with the voiceover is the content or the delivery but this is easily Bears' least appealing element.

Fothergill, who previously co-directed Earth, spent a year in Alaska following the title creatures. The end credits show glimpses behind the scenes and, as is often the case, this makes one wonder whether a documentary about the making of Bears might have been more interesting than the actual film. For the most part, what we see on screen is more a result of decisions made in the editing room than it is an accurate representation of twelve months in the life of a mother bear and her cubs. It's easy to understand the reasons behind that but it makes one wonder whether this deserves a "documentary" label.

Despite the visual splendor, it's difficult to get too enthused about Bears. It has a generic "nature documentary" feel and, even at only 77 minutes, it feels like it runs long. Coupled with Chimpanzee, which also disappointed, there's reason to wonder how many more titles of this sort Disneynature will churn out.

Bears (United States, 2014)

Run Time: 1:17
U.S. Release Date: 2014-04-18
MPAA Rating: "G"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1