If you have small children, by now you probably know the drill with these new Disneynature documentaries: lots of breathtaking photography and nothing that the little ones will find too upsetting. Bears was my first direct experience with one of these movies on the big screen. The Alaskan scenery does look terrific, I will say. Still, shouldn’t a documentary movie about bears actually, y’know, teach me something about bears? It’s not like it would be hard. I’m no expert on bears, after all. Yet I came out of this film stubbornly uneducated and thus unsatisfied.
Just as he did with his previous Disney films Chimpanzee and African Cats, director Alastair Fothergill frames this as the story of a family of cuddly characters. A mother brown bear whom the film calls Sky leads her two cubs, a male named Scout and a female named Amber, out of winter hibernation and through a year’s journey toward the different places that might hold food for them. The dangers in the trip mostly come from the fact that the cubs could end up becoming food for a wolf or even an adult bear who’s desperate enough. It’s up to Sky to keep them safe until it’s time to hibernate yet again, since brown bear cubs stay with their mothers for the first two to four years of life.
Once again, Fothergill drowns the animals in cutesiness. When the bear cubs play, the movie seems to poke us in the ribs and say, “Oh, look at that!” We don’t need this; when Scout frantically tries to extricate one of his claws from a clamshell while a bunch of seagulls in the background impassively watch, it’s funny enough without the music and the narration (read by John C. Reilly) prodding us.
I’m also curious about how Scout is depicted as the more adventurous one while Amber sticks closer to mama. As with previous Disneynature films, we’re not actually watching the same family of bears throughout the whole movie — footage of different mother bears and cubs has been spliced into one story for dramatic effect. So soon after Disney’s Frozen turned stuff on its head and won great reviews for doing so, have the studio’s old gender stereotypes made a comeback here? Or are male brown bear cubs in fact normally more adventurous than female ones? Again, I’m not an ursinologist (uh, bear expert).
Slack and unhurried despite its scant 77-minute running time, Bears allowed my mind plenty of time to drift, and I wound up thinking that this movie might make a delightful double bill with Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, because I’m puckish that way. (You might have a better word for that.) I was able to keep my thoughts occupied in such a manner. With this movie offering so little in the ways of either education or entertainment, your 6-year-old may have to do likewise.
Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey. Rated G.