As winter gives way to spring and Alaskan mama bear Sky begins to stir with her two yawning cubs Amber and Scout, Bears narrator John C. Reilly comments that "the first year of parenting is the hardest." Over the course of the next 77 minutes, as the seasons change and Sky struggles to protect her offspring while building her fat reserves for the coming hibernation, parents in the audience will no doubt relate to that observation. Yet their own kids will likely be wide-eyed and transfixed by the majestic, often breathtaking images captured by the Disneynature crew as they follow this tight-knit family on their incredible journey through the sprawling meadows and magnificent mountains of Alaska, searching for safety and sustenance nearly every step of the way.
That's the story of Bears. It's a simple one, to be sure, but therein lies the film's charm and its subtle ability to simultaneously educate and entertain young audiences while also offering adults a vivid glimpse into a seldom-seen world. Since 2007's Earth, director Alastair Fothergill has been creating top-quality nature documentaries for Disney that appeal to young and old alike. Here, with producer/co-director Keith Scholey, he continues that tradition in grand fashion. Yes, there's a fair amount of pandering anthropomorphism on display, but given the film's young target audience, that's to be expected. And considering the incredible sights Fothergill shows us, it's easy to forgive.
Of course, much of the fun stems from Reilly's playful narration, which doesn't shy away from easy jokes. His commentary possesses a comforting quality that keeps us emotionally invested in the creatures as they face such formidable adversaries as a 1000-pound bear named Magnus, an outcast ursine named Chinook, and a hungry wolf named Tikani -- not to mention potentially tragic twists of fate such as missing a crucial meal. Yet even after noting that almost half of all bear cubs won't survive their first year, or observing that "things are getting tense" as Magnus eyes Amber and Scout for a potential snack, Reilly keeps the mood fairly lighthearted throughout. And although the tension occasionally feels a bit contrived (in particular toward the end, as Sky lies undernourished in the woods with the cubs close by), reassurance is never too far away.
The poor salmon in Bears suffer most of the misfortune, though, and while scenes of bears waiting on waterfalls for the fish to leap into their jaws are nothing new, Fothergill and Scholey manage to find a bit of unexpected humor there -- as in other places -- that gives the impression of seeing a familiar scene through a new set of eyes. There's even a savage poetry in the slow-motion clash between Chinook and Tikani that's more likely to mesmerize younger viewers than make them leap out of their seats, which occasionally shake from guttural growls and thundering stomps. All the while, composer George Fenton (The Blue Planet, Planet Earth) uses everything from acoustic guitar to harmonica and strings to give the story a rich musical backdrop, making Bears a wondrous experience for cubs and mama bears alike.