March of the Penguins changed the game when it was released in 2005. Before that powerful documentary, which chronicles the journey of penguins from their homeland to their breeding grounds, people could give two shits about the tuxedo wearing flightless birds of the Antarctic. Fortunately for penguins, with the lure of Morgan Freeman’s smooth, all-knowing voice and Luc Jacquet’s placid imagery, moviegoers the world over developed a soft spot for those dapper ice skaters and the hardships they endure to breed.
March of the Penguins gave us tears, laughter, and triumph and for awhile Hollywood was obsessed with penguins. They became the WWJD bracelets of the animal kingdom. In typical media frenzy form, other documentaries attempted to follow suit with other animals to less than stellar results, which leads to Disney’s Bears. If you’re in need of a wholesome family film to watch this Easter holiday, then Bears fits just fine. But, don’t expect to be wowed by it in any sense of the word.
In Bears, we follow a mother bear, Sky, and her two cubs, Scout and Amber, as they travel from their birth home around the Alaskan wilderness of in search of enough food to shovel down their throats before the rays of summer ice over into unforgiving winter. As the family travels, they come across a slew of natural beauty, fierce competition, predators, unlikely friendships, and learn that a family that grazes together, stays together… bear with me, puns aren’t my forte.
My type of pun.
Bear’s strongest aspect is obviously seeing wide shots of the magnificent beauty of American wilderness. Extreme long shots and overhead helicopter shots are just two of the many ways the beauty of Earth’s landscape is captured. There is also an emphasis of colors within nature and we are treated to gorgeous images of green foliage, yellows streaks from the summer sun, and tight focuses that create light bokeh and fuzzy blurs of insects in the day. The animal kingdom simply explodes in rich multi-colored life.
However, what I enjoyed most about Bears is that while bears are the film’s primary focus, other animals in their web of life get centered on. We become acquainted with the journey of salmon and their struggles of upstream travel in order to breed. Bald eagles and their studious faces are beautifully captured and a wolf with his eye on the cubs becomes an unexpected companion to the story.
“Damn, them some nice cubs over there!”
Now, I love John C. Reilly just as much as the next person (Dr. Steve Brule was a staple in my life before he had his own show and Reed Rothchild is the best on-screen sidekick/magician in porn that I know) but to pretend that his voice work shares the same sophistication as Morgan Freeman, David Attenborough, or Oprah Winfrey is a disservice to voice-over narrators everywhere. Just because Reilly has some voice work experience from commercials and Wreck-It Ralph under his belt doesn’t mean his voice work is anything beyond standard. Instead of coming off as knowledgeable of this world we are shown, Reilly sounds more like a goofy uncle going over lines with an elementary-schooler for a play featuring a cast of bears. As a whole, listening to him explain what these bears are thinking and desiring and attempting to embody different characters’ voices at various times is just flat and awkward.
“Hi, I’m Dr. Steve Brule and today I’m gonna talk to you about… umm…. *looks at cue cards* bears. And wine.”
Speaking of which, am I the only one who thinks narrating what’s on the mind of an animal is a wee bit tacky? The most frustrating, eye-rolling aspect of Bears is how the script attempts to create a first person narrative inside of its omnipresence, instead of merely allowing nature’s amazingness to speak for itself. Therefore, Reilly ultimately does nothing more than assert meaning to edits. During one sequence in which Scout sits rolling around in a meadow while his mother and sister eat, we are told that Scout is looking for a role model among the other bears in the meadow. Every corresponding edit shows us each separate bear while Reilly, acting as the voice of Scout, shoots down every bear for not making the cut as “role model.” This scene is only present just so that later in the film a sappy comment about Scout’s mentor being in front of him the whole time is included.
While the adventure of the bears we follow feels a bit constructed thanks to the edits and narration, the interaction between animals and the camera felt a bit fake, in that perfect Disney sort of way. I questioned many times the actual threat of the family and found myself more curious how the camera was operating and capturing these moments than whether Sky would find food in time. During the closing credits footage the filming process is shown. What we see are cameramen and their full packs of equipment plopped on the land of these animals. We see a crew so close to the bears that they bears walk up right to them and no one shivers or worries with apprehension. We see bear fights happen mere feet from where cameramen sit comfortably which makes everything that happens in the film feel further fake and unnatural. This beer is likely more a fault of my own for not taking in that the film would be shot on a nature preserve, but I feel this comfort only weakens the threats and struggles of the bears we watch.
“Alright, we gotta cut and do that again. Make it look sexier this time, Sky.”
I can’t fault Disney too much for wanting to present a clean cut, picture perfect image of a bears struggles to survive. No one wants to take their kids into another Grizzly Man and walk away feeling devastated about bears, although Treadwell’s death did more for the awareness of bears than this film. Nevertheless, Bears is a lighthearted G-rated film, which doesn’t come around too often. If you’re looking to have a nice outing with the family, then Bears is your honey pot. You’ll giggle, you’ll worry, you’ll smile and feel jolly at the end, regardless of how superficial you know that feeling actually is, because Disney is a master of cinematic trades and knows how to falsely extract that feeling from you. But hey, bears, right?
Take a Sip: every time a bear stands on its hind legs
Take a Sip: every time a bear fights
Take a Sip: every time the crow inexplicably shows up
Take a Sip: for every fish a bear catches
Do a Shot: every time… oh shit there’s Magnus!