There’s a thin line between cute and cutesy. The Disneynature film Bears wobbles on the line of being aimed squarely at tots, while being entertaining for anyone over the age of five. Lucky for the filmmakers, they have the advantage of stunning photography and truly impressive beastliness to keep even the jaded interested.
It’s as though we are watching a reality show about bears. The filmmakers follow a family of brown bears in Alaska from the day they emerge from their den (a mother and her two tiny cubs) through spring and summer, and into fall, when their nature cycle of bear-dom has them ready to crawl back into their dens for a long wintertime slumber. Narrator John C. Reilly, with his almost rubbery, Muppety voice, decides to name them Sky (mom), Scout and Amber (cubs). It seems eye-rollingly precious, of course, but ends up making the spliced-together narrative easier to follow (as there are a LOT of bears in the movie). The bear family encounters other bears, some benign, some very mean (and scarily threatening) as well as other critters, including wolves and a crow (given the mythological role of a guide for Sky).
The narrative arc is pretty much: food, food, food. As the bears visit meadows, streams, and shorelines, Sky’s priority (we are told) is to eat as much as possible so that she can provide nourishment for herself and her babies during hibernation. But as the seasons change, even the average viewer can see that she is alarmingly thin (for a bear) as she just can’t seem to get lucky. Sometimes they arrive too early at a feeding area (the salmon aren’t there yet), or too late (the area is dominated by other threatening territorial bears that would not be above eating their own). There are even a few nail-biting moments that had me worried for the sake of the cubs, including one where Scout falls asleep on the beach only to wake up surrounded by the raging incoming tide, separated from his mom and sister, who are already safely on the beach. Poor pup! Haven’t we all been afraid of something like that happening to ourselves?
Yes, the sometimes cutesy narration made me wince a few times (“Hey little guy!”), and the insertion of the requisite montage gentle pop songs was kind of distracting. But as someone who grew loving Sunday afternoon nature shows like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, I found myself kind of swept into the adventure and the survival of these amazing beasts.