Having a rough week with the kids? I know a mother grizzly bear that would be happy to trade places.
“Bears” features a grizzly named Sky, who travels from snow-covered mountains to salmon spawning grounds, protecting two cubs that we’re told each have a 50 percent chance of dying before adulthood. Food is hard to find, and papa bear is nowhere to be found — presumably robbing picnic baskets somewhere with no plans to contribute child support.
The new Disneynature film lacks the fortuitous plot turns found in previous Disney documentaries, resulting in some awkward (and possibly deceptive) editing. But the movie has a strong protagonist and impressive footage, and the educational core is unsullied. It’s impressive in this age of Pokemon battles and special forces-skilled Madagascar penguins that a G-rated documentary can still command a 6-year-old’s attention for 86 minutes.
“Bears” plays like an ursine Roger Moore documentary, set out to prove that every word in those Berenstain Bears books was a lie. On paper, Sky’s journey in the Alaskan wilderness with her cubs Scout and Amber is as harrowing as a Cormac McCarthy novel. Starvation is an imminent reality, and foes, including a cannibal-minded outcast bear, roam the countryside. For reasons never made completely clear, Sky appears to have been exiled from the main bear community.
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In contrast to this stark situation, nature documentary veterans Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey play the high jinks to near-smothering levels. The cubs are used almost exclusively for comic relief — every scene as precious and whimsical as the posters on the walls of children’s dentist office. (Hang in there, Scout and Amber!)
Family-friendly cinema has its downside. “Bears” continues the unfortunate tradition of interpreting animal behavior in human terms. A low point comes during a mating discussion, when burlesque music is played while the narration jokes about a male bear’s pickup artist “game.”
But it’s a compromise that viewers with kids will be able to live with. At least none of the bears talk, like the prehistoric hatchlings in the recent “Walking With Dinosaurs” movie. And bonus points for all but eliminating the easy scatological humor. Does a bear (poop) in the woods? You won’t find out watching “Bears.”
Fothergill seemed to get luckier with “Chimpanzee,” still the best of the recent Disneynature documentaries. That 2012 film featured a chess-like chimpanzee turf war, and an orphaned chimp that gets a life-affirming happy ending. It appears that events outside of filmmaker control were less dramatic in “Bears,” and exaggerated tension-building is the result. (Examples: A drowning scare and a lost cub scene appear to be following reality show rules when it comes to the edits.)
The quieter moments are much better. Fothergill, Scholey and their crew get impressively close to hungry and on-edge animals that could kill a human with a casual backhand. Post-credits scenes confirm just how hard the filmmakers worked. These crews are pros, the cinematography is frequently spectacular, and as these documentaries continue (“Monkey Kingdom” looks promising in 2015), the constantly improving technology allows for a more intimate experience.
Playful narration is provided by John C. Reilly, who should get more Disneynature work. His delivery is half Morgan Freeman and half Will Ferrell, which is the perfect blend for the light drama.