Movie review: Disney's 'Bears' is way too warm, fuzzy but still watchable

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLEApril 18, 2014 

Film Review Bears

Mama bear Sky and her cub, Scout, in the Disney nature documentary “Bears.”

ADAM CHAPMAN — AP

  • BEARS •• 1/2•

    Rated: G. Starring: John C. Reilly. Director: Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey. Running time: 86 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 22, Edwards 14 and Edwards 12 in Nampa, Majestic 18 and Village Cinema in Meridian.

Having a rough week with the kids? I know a mother grizzly bear that would be happy to trade places.

"Bears" features a grizzly named Sky, who travels from snow-covered mountains to salmon spawning grounds, protecting two cubs we're told have a 50 percent chance of dying before adulthood. Food is hard to find, and papa bear is nowhere to be found - presumably robbing picnic baskets somewhere with no plans to contribute child support.

The new Disney nature film lacks the fortuitous plot turns found in previous Disney documentaries, resulting in some awkward (and possibly deceptive) editing.

But the movie has a strong protagonist and impressive footage, and the educational core is unsullied. It's impressive in this age of Pokemon battles that a G-rated documentary can still command a 6-year-old's attention for 86 minutes.

On paper, Sky's journey in the Alaskan wilderness with her cubs Scout and Amber is as harrowing as a Cormac McCarthy novel. Starvation is an imminent reality, and foes including a cannibal-minded outcast bear roam the countryside. For reasons never made completely clear, Sky appears to have been exiled from the main bear community.

In contrast to this stark situation, nature documentary veterans Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey play the high jinks to near-smothering levels. The cubs are used almost exclusively for comic relief.

Family-friendly cinema has its downside. "Bears" continues the unfortunate tradition of interpreting animal behavior in human terms.

A low point comes during a mating discussion, when burlesque music is played while the narration jokes about a male bear's pickup artist "game."

But it's a compromise that viewers with kids will be able to live with.

Fothergill seemed to get luckier with "Chimpanzee," still the best of the recent Disneynature documentaries. That 2012 film featured a chess-like chimpanzee turf war, and an orphaned chimp that gets a life-affirming happy ending. It appears that events outside of filmmaker control were less dramatic in "Bears," and exaggerated tension-building is the result. (Examples: A drowning scare and a lost cub scene appear to be following reality show rules when it comes to the edits.)

The quieter moments are much better. Fothergill, Scholey and their crew get impressively close to hungry and on-edge animals that could kill a human with a casual backhand.

These crews are pros, the cinematography is frequently spectacular, and as these documentaries continue ("Monkey Kingdom" looks promising in 2015), the constantly improving technology allows for a more intimate experience.

Playful narration is provided by John C. Reilly.

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