"Nature, red in tooth and claw." - Alfred, Lord Tennyson
"It's like a freakin' Country Bear Jambaroo around here!" - Homer J. Simpson
Disneynature, the French production arm that's probably something of a tax write-off for the gigundo Walt Disney Corporation, is back with another top-shelf family-friendly naturalist film. 'Bears' is their fifth Earth Day-timed title released to theaters (two others went straight to DVD) and it yet again affords us 80 minutes of sitting in a theater muttering "how the hell did they get that shot?"
Directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey follow a mama brown bear and her two newborn cubs from their hibernation den on a snowy peak in Alaska to their eventual goal of an all-you-can-eat Sushi buffet at a salmon spawning pool. It isn't just that Fothergill and Scholey sculpt a traditional three-act narrative, with obstacles, predators, friendly side-characters and comic relief, it's that they shoot it like a “real movie,” too.
One can not tell a 1,000-lb brown bear, "that was no good, let's try another take," so we're left, again, asking the question, "how the hell did they get that shot?" Eventually you embrace the mystery and accept that, somehow, you are following this sharp-clawed single parent as she dodges wolves and helps her children find food. That there is traditional “coverage” (like an over-the-shoulder shot of an avalanche) is just part of what separates Disneynature from the other brands.
The degree to which the film and John C. Reilly's jokey narration anthropomorphizes these bears isn't quite as heavy as it may first appear. There are moments when Reilly does schtick in the “voice” of the confused young cubs (“Hey, ma, come back!” type of thing), but it is enough of a remove that all but small kids will get that he's kidding.
But, maybe very small kids shouldn't be watching. When the bears finally find some salmon, hoo-boy, it's a surprisingly red feast. Bones crunch, flesh is torn apart, tails writhe in panicked agony. Strangely, the film offers a chapter explaining how salmon (the most fascinating of all fish?) spend their lives swimming upstream like the deranged nostalgists they are. Just as we begin to understand their drive to return, at all costs, to the spot where they were hatched: BRRARRR here comes a bear claw to destroy their dreams. I guarantee you that a group of sensitive young uns will be writing essays fifteen years from now about how seeing the other kids cheer for the feasting bears (as country-tinged phrases wheeze from a harmonica and John C. Reilly makes jokes) caused them irreparable damage. Or maybe it's time to groom a generation of salmon murderers, who knows?
'Bears' doesn't quite top 2012's release 'Chimpanzee,' though this is somewhat due to the limitations of the subject. Chimps have highly advanced social dynamics, bears mostly sleep, growl, scratch and eat. Nevertheless the Alaskan settings are just gorgeous – it's about time one of these films was set on Amurrican soil! - and when the big brown fuzzballs are climbing up bright white snowy hills it is, in fact, the most adorable thing you've ever seen.
'Bears' opens in theaters on April 18.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.