I don’t always know how to feel about nature documentaries. Most nature films either anthropomorphize their subjects to such an extent that you feel like you’re watching a live-action version of Madagascar, or they keep you so distant that it’s difficult to emotionally invest in the story. Luckily, Disney’s new film Bears strikes just the right balance.
Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, Bears follows Sky, an Alaskan grizzly, as she tries to keep her newborn cubs safe during what the film’s narrator (John C. Reilly) describes as their most vulnerable year of life. Only 40% of grizzly cubs make it to their first birthday. With the stakes set high, we watch as Sky and her babies migrate to the coast in search of protein-rich seafood.
Over the course of their journey west, the audience is treated to some incredible scenery. Set in Sitka, the countryside is so stunning that it’s easy to forget that you’re not watching Lord of the Rings. This actually works in the film’s favor. The dramatic landscape lends an epic quality to the family’s journey.
One thing that really surprised me about Sky and her family was how familiar their interactions seemed. I know this may sound crazy, but watching Sky play with her two cubs reminded me of my own family. Both Scout and Amber had such distinct personalities that it was easy to forget they were just bears. Their gestures and relationships with each other were so specific and unique that despite their furry exteriors, one could glimpse something that vaguely resembled humanity.
Of course, this human-like depiction was intentional on Disney’s part, and it certainly was effective in evoking sympathy. I really did want them to succeed. I don’t know if I would have been as eager to see them safe and sound if they had seemed less human.
As the film wound down, the ending unfolded itself in a neat, fairytale sort of way. I won’t ruin anything, but I can promise that the ending won’t have your nine-year-old bawling at the injustice of the animal kingdom. However, this did get me thinking—what would Disney had done had something catastrophic happened to Sky and her family? Would they have moved on to another bear family or scrapped the project entirely? It seems, in hindsight, that they bears must have been guided in some capacity or Disney would have spent a lot of money on a kids movie they couldn’t use.
The ending credits give the audience a little “behind the scenes” glimpse of what it took to make the movie. Tacked on to the end, these shots of the production team trekking through the Alaskan outback could be easily ignored. Yet, given my questions about the authenticity of Sky’s journey, I took extra care to pay attention. The movie is so slick, so well-crafted and so beautiful, it’s easy to forget that it was essentially made out of found footage. The goal of the film was to make nature relatable to middle class pre-teens. How at risk were Sky and her family? Were the stakes actually real or part of a constructed narrative? I suppose that’s something you’ll have to figure out on your own.
Director: Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey
Starring: John C. Reilly
Release Date: Apr. 18th, 2014