You can't really watch the film “Bears” with any expectation of plot or even a plethora of factoids for your kids to spout off randomly in the car. There are a few of those for sure (did you know that a bear's sense of smell is seven times stronger than a blood hound's?) but the film's purpose is evoke as many “awwwwwws” and “squeeeees” from the titular animals’ escapades as humanly possible.
Another entry in the Disneynature documentary series – others include such efficiently titled films as “Oceans” and “Chimpanzee” – “Bears” is about, well, bears. There's a momma bear and two cubs, and the film follows their Alaskan adventures – from finding food to not becoming somebody else's food – from the end of one hibernation cycle to the start of another. Oh, and the voice of narrator John C. Reilly bounces about through the film's blessedly brief run time.
That last line is often used as an insult, but it's honestly a compliment to the filmmakers, who opted against making an unnecessarily long movie and created something quick, painless and fairly entertaining. Props are also due to anyone willing to cut down a year's worth of footage – hours upon hours of film to process and ounces of pride to eat – to 13 minutes short of an hour-and-a-half movie.
What's left is a film lacking in meat and burdened by both the “G” rating and the Disney label, which combine to diminish the documentary’s danger. Nature is a cruel, cruel mistress, but “Bears” only hints at what those animals face – in this case a lone wolf and a couple of enormous male bears lacking food – and the attempts to add a little drama are dampened by the inevitable happy ending. In other words, “Bears” won't create those childhood mental scars in your kids like “Bambi,” “Old Yeller” or “Up” did to you.
Also missing is the educational experience one expects from a nature documentary. Sure, you get a few tidbits to dispense at parties (the one mentioned above is the only one that sticks out for me), but viewers won't learn much more about bears than they did before entering the cinema. To repurpose a Rick Pitino quote, David Attenborough isn't walking through that door, Morgan Freeman isn't walking through that door.
Speaking in their stead is Reilly – an odd character actor who revels in comedies starring rather abnormal people (see Brule, Dr. Steve) yet remains a capable and competent dramatic actor in films like “Gangs of New York” and “Magnolia.” His serious side pops out in “Bears” whenever danger begins to waft through the atmosphere, but his overall tone is light and impeccably goofy and includes tangents that criticize a bear's lack of game in his pursuit of a mate.
The light touch percolates into “Bears'” tone and matches the actions of the central animals, who frolic about in fields, roam around, get into fights and spend days searching for sustenance, and the highlights of those bear-like activities belong to the misadventures the two goofball cubs get into. They're curious, energetic and cute as all heck, whether they’re gallivanting through the snow or taking a nap in the middle of a watery field, and the filmmakers play that up for all its worth. It's effectively manipulative, and convinces viewers that bears aren't just godless killing machines (at least for 77 minutes).
If “Bears” does have one aspect with some depth to it though, it's the way it portrays nature as a place defined by survival. Certain animals are treated as enemies to our family of bears, but the filmmakers don't try to force reasons for their actions, nor do they create true villains. Rather, the animals’ motivations are rooted in their nature and quest to survive for as long as possible, just as it is in the natural world (except for dolphins; those guys are jerk faces).
The honest look at the nature of nature is appreciated, but “Bears” is far more interested in the shenanigans of the titular characters than any deeper point. No complaints here on that; those cubs are just the sweetest little things.
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