It's gorgeous, intimate and beautifully photographed. And it's cute and kid-friendly, with just enough jokes to balance the drama that comes from any film that flirts with how dangerous and unforgiving the wild actually is.
Here, it's Alaskan brown bears we follow as cute cubs through their first year of life. A mama bear and her two cubs endure a year of hunger, dangerous encounters with other bears, a wolf and a riptide as they trek from snowy mountains, where the cubs were born, down to the coast where salmon streams feed into the sea.
The mother, "Sky," needs to fatten up on salmon to be able to survive and nurse her cubs Amber and Scout through their coming second winter. The cubs need to discover the world, and stay out of the way of omnivorous male bears and assorted other dangers. We're told, right off the top, that only half of the cubs born each winter make it through their first year alive.
More than once, "Bears" flirts with the grim realities of less-sentimental films such as "The Last Lions" and Disney's own "African Cats." The adult bear fights are quite intense and frightening.
But John C. Reilly narrates this nature tale with a hint of whimsy, especially when the cubs get into mischief — as, for instance, they try to learn how to dig up clams, and discover getting "clamped."
"Leggo of my claw, clam!"
They're craving salmon, but until the salmon run starts, the cubs have to get by on chewing grass.
"It's like settling for a dirty salad!"
The cubs ride mama Sky's back across freezing rivers, stick close when danger is near and roughhouse with each other and their mother, forcing that involuntary "Awwww" out of even the most jaded viewer.
The filmmakers get right underneath the fur to see the tiny cubs just after birth, and the extreme close-ups and very cinematic tracking shots take us into a pristine wilderness where survival is a matter of instinct, pluck and more than a little luck. It's reassuring to see that there are still places as unspoiled as this, and that Disney is willing to pour some of its theme park and Marvel Studio millions back into documentaries that are more worthwhile than profitable.
So yeah, they're cute. But forget about that (and that there's a whole TV channel devoted to this sort of film). Use these Earth Day delights the way they were intended — as big-screen rewards for the intrepid filmmakers who devote years at a time to making them and as a taste of nature most of us, especially the very young, will never be able to experience in the wild.
"Bears" (three stars)
Narrated by John C. Reilly. Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, written by Alastair Fothergill and Adam Chapman. A Disneynature release.
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