As any of my regular readers know, I’m not a fan of the Disney Nature series. Not quite documentaries, and not quite works of fiction, these films are weird hybrids of documentary footage with incredibly hackneyed “plots” shoehorned in. Celebrity narrators spend the film telling us the names of the animals, what they’re thinking, and constantly explaining the motivation of every action on screen. There’s usually a forced narrative, manipulated into existence through the clever editing of footage obtained over an extensive period of time. Anything that could possibly be learned about the subject of each film is overshadowed by the overly cutesy dialogue and sound effects, along with the completely manufactured story.
That being said, the films are technical marvels, and I try to give each film in the series a fair shot. Unfortunately, the newest release under the Disney Nature banner, Bears, is slight even by the standards set forth by the earlier films. Running a far too long 78 minutes, the film shows one year in the life of a bear family. Set in Alaska, the mother bear named Sky, and her two cubs, Scout and Amber, begin their journey as winter is ending. Having just woken from hibernation, they spend the next year wandering through the Alaskan wilderness. Along the way, they encounter dangers such as a wolf, an outcast bear desperate for food of any sort, and occasional threats from Mother Nature herself.
Very episodic in nature, many of the conflicts of the film feel completely manufactured. One moment has Scout falling asleep as the tide is coming in, only to wake up surrounded by water. What is obviously intended to be a tense moment of survival just ends with him getting pulled out, and moving on with the journey. The filmmakers seem so desperate for drama that when Scout wanders out of frame, the narration implies that he might be lost, only to say “there he is” as Scout wanders back in the shot.
John C. Reilly serves as the narrator of this film, and while I’m normally a huge fan of his, I couldn’t help but feel he was phoning this performance in. Every line is read in a sing-song high-pitched voice, obviously meant to endear to young children. I get the choice, but a little more gravitas would have greatly helped the film.
Having said all that, the film is, as expected, gorgeously shot. There are truly epic visuals where the filmmakers capture the majesty of the Alaskan wilderness. I am continually amazed at the guts of these film crews, immersing themselves into the environments of these potentially deadly animals. This is why the Blu-Ray bonus features are so much more compelling than the film itself. These are master filmmakers, and the bonus features give a great deal of insight into the technical challenge that goes into a film such as this. While the artistry of the footage is amazing, it’s just as impressive seeing the way they essentially have to live with these animals to get the footage. All of this is covered in various features, along with a brief look at the importance of protecting the wilderness, and a music video by Olivia Holt.
I really do appreciate what the Disney Nature series is trying to do. Children will probably enjoy spending time with the animals, even if the animals are humanized to a ridiculous degree. It’s great that they are capturing the corners of the world that we don’t always get to see. It’s just a shame that the attempt to make these animals relatable ends up misrepresenting the essence of what makes them so powerful, essentially stripping away their voices to appease the youngest of viewers.