There is a lot to like about Bears, the latest cinematic offering from Disneynature. There is much to dislike as well, but you'll be fine if you approach the viewing experience from the proper point of view. That point of view being that bears are great, and watching them do bear stuff is also great.
The first thing that needs to be said about Bears is that it is gorgeous. Disney must have shelled out a decent chunk of money for this project, because the entire thing is chock-full of beautiful aerial footage, tight tracking shots, and some of the best use of super slow-motion I've ever seen. In one particularly awe-inspiring slow-mo sequence, we get to watch salmon leap out of a river and fly into the mouths—and sometimes unsuspecting faces—of waiting brown bears. If watching a big-ass salmon smash into a big, dumb bear's face at 1,000 high-def frames per second doesn't do it for you, then I don't know what will. This is nature porn at its most inspired.
But there's more to Bears than just beautiful footage; there is a story to be told here. The film documents a year in the life of a family of three brown bears. There's the mama bear, who is dubbed Sky (lame), and her two newborn cubs: Scout (lamer) and Amber (eh). We join the family just as they emerge from hibernation, high in the Alaskan mountains. John C. Reilly is along for the ride to narrate and interject America's Funniest Home Videos-style imagined animal dialogue, and just so everyone is clear on what kind of movie this is, Phillip Phillips' "Home" plays during an early montage.
Which brings me to what's kind of annoying about this movie: the uber-Disney narrative arc constructed to hold up all this incredible footage. At the onset, we are told that 50 percent of bear cubs do not survive their first year of life. This sets up Sky, who is ascribed a variety of human capacities by Reilly's narration—she "hopes" for a lot of things, for example—as the film's protagonist. Sky is on a quest: She must eat a lot of salmon and keep her babies alive for one year.
Consequently, I couldn't help but spend the next 77 minutes terrified that one of the cubs was going to die. The poor things spend the entire movie with Disney's metaphorical guillotines hanging over their heads, dodging a never-ending parade of perils that threaten to bring the blades down. Here's a list of all the stuff that threatens to kill the cubs throughout the movie:
- An avalanche
- A big male bear named Magnus that likes to eat cubs
- A shithead wolf who keeps showing up and trying to eat the cubs
- Another male bear named Chinook, cast as the creepy uncle of the Alaskan bear community, who likes to eat cubs
- Unexpected changes in the tide
- Female bears who are just pissed off for no reason
All of these antagonistic forces are introduced via a series of tense moments—you can tell they are tense because the music changes—during which the words oh shit oh shit oh shit please don't let that baby bear die kept running through my head. The drama reaches a crescendo at the end when Sky, who hasn't eaten enough salmon to last her through the winter, lays down in the forest. Reilly tells us that she has failed her cubs, who will not have enough of her milk to drink during hibernation. But wait! A mysterious raven's call (huh?) lures her to a nearby pond stocked with all the salmon she'll ever need. Happy ending!
I get why this storifying is necessary—the clinical narration of your typical National Geographic nature documentary ain't gonna sell movie tickets—but it annoyed me, because it trapped my emotions and my attention. I knew the cubs weren't going to die— Disney doesn't roll like that—but I couldn't stop worrying about them dying, and that prevented me from enjoying all the amazing bear stuff. And there was a lot of awesome bear stuff. Moments like Sky fighting off Chinook in order to protect her cubs, Scout frolicking on a beach like the cutest fucking thing that ever lived, and the cubs teaming up to chase off a wolf were genuinely compelling on their own. The collected bear videos of the internet don't have shit on Scout stumbling around the beach with his claw stuck in a giant clam.
I suspect that those moments will be much more enjoyable for viewers who elect to avoid Disney's storyline altogether. So go see Bears, but ignore everything John C. Reilly has to say, and just enjoy the awesome bear stuff. Only if you really like bears, of course, but what kind of monster would you be if you didn't?