I remember reading this short story in my Grade 7 English class where the narrator was talking about how she could not tear her eyes away from the television, which was showing a cheetah hunting. I do not remember the context of the story nor can I recall why it was relevant to our English class, but that was the exact moment when I realized why I actually watched programs on animals and wildlife: it is because primal instinct is completely fascinating.
Disneynature’s latest effort, Bears, showcases that fact extremely well. The film follows a new momma bear named Sky and her two cubs, Scout and Amber, as they awaken from hibernation in time for spring. From that point, the film essentially becomes a live-action version of any animal-based Disney flick out there. Instead of voice actors, we have John C. Reilly narrating the family’s travels, turning a hunt for food into a tale highlighting the cubs’ wonderment with a brand new world and a mother who tries to protect them and teach them about its tricks, nuances, and opportunities. But unlike most of its animated cousins, Bears regularly reminds viewers how powerless all of earth’s inhabitants are to the threat of nature’s due course with the most daunting and uncontrollable situations.
These types of moments are also some of the most beautifully filmed sequences that the film crew captured during their one year production in Alaska After all, such technical work is directors Alasator Fothergill and Keith Scholey’s forte: Forthergill co-produced the Planet Earth series and Scholey also co-directed Disneynature’s previous effort, African Cats. Whether it was the crashing waves of snow during an avalanche or a pack of salmon scurrying upstream, Bears provides fantastic visual insights, big and small, into the varying landscape of meadows, mountains and rivers that are tucked away in the Alaskan landscape.
It’s the kind of background that makes the audience that much more engaged with Sky, Scout and Amber’s story, especially when paired with Reilly’s slightly cheesy but oddly comforting narration. He kind of sounds like a parent reading to their child, especially as he characterizes the bear family and their obstacles. Take Scout, who is a little bit more curious and adventure-seeking than his sister Amber, who is kind of a mommy’s girl. He is always getting into trouble and frequently needs help from his mom. Or Magnus and Chinook, who lay claim over their meadow territories and prove to be as challenging and terrifying as the rising tides that Scout has to swim through in order to reach the mainland safely. This kind of personification gears the film towards younger audiences, but it also helps viewers of all ages care more for the creatures than they might have otherwise. I admittedly have not watched any of the Disneynature films other than Bears, so I am unsure as to whether or not this is a common trait of all of their products, but it works.
The how and what of the constructed narrative is of course dependent on the actual behaviour of the bears, which is indeed incredibly fascinating and really the main reason why you should watch this documentary/film. The production team captured some endearing moments that yes, tug on your heart strings, and yes, make you laugh, but they also demonstrate how their communication, body language, and skills have evolved and allowed them to adapt to the challenges that they face. I was just in awe of Sky as she flipped over rocks to find eels as a temporary protein replacement for her preferred diet of salmon, how she growled her opponents away and wrestled with Magnus while her children took refuge in logs. It is equally interesting to watch Scout and Amber, who with all of their curiosity learned a fair deal from their mother as they scrimmaged through mud, forests, fields and rivers for food, fun and at times, their community. These activities and reactions are completely identifiable, and by the end, you realize this is the whole point. Bears teaches us that the instinct to protect, the desire to discover, and the will to survive are indeed much more common than we may realize. That’s probably why a lot of kids walked out of the theatre saying things like “I want to be the Momma bear!” and “I am Scout!” – an adorable added bonus to seeing the film in theatres.
I attended an advance screening held by Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures Canada and received the tickets through a free giveaway courtesy of WDSMPC. Disneynature’s Bears will be released on April 18th, 2014 in North America.