By NATHAN LERNER
Shot in the Katmai National Park and other protected portions of Alaska’s southern peninsula, “Bears” amply captures the region’s natural splendor. This nature documentary provides eye-popping footage, which focuses on a family of three bears. The mother, Sky, is raising a male and female cub, Scout and Amber, during their first year of life. According to the film, only half of cubs will survive the challenges of this early period. This somber note creates a certain dramatic tension.
The film commences with a scene of the cave-bound Sky, recently emerged from hibernation. Her recently-born cubs are busily breast feeding. The trio must endure a trek from their inland hibernation site to the coastline. There, they will be able to feast on schools of salmon, copious clams, and other indigenous foods.
To reach their destination, they must climb over a mountain chain and avoid the perils of intermittent avalanches. These early vignettes provide some of the film’s best footage.
Even when the bears reach the shoreline, danger abounds. Two huge male bears, Magnus and Chinook, seem intent upon devouring the cubs. These male bears are triple the size of Sky and vastly stronger than she is. In addition, a wolf, Chinook, hovers nearby and manifests similar predatory predilections. To protect her defenseless cubs, Sky must resort to adaptive stratagems.
This fifth film from the Disney subsidiary is helmed by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey. Fothergill achieved renown for his award-winning BBC series, “The Blue Planet.” He subsequently directed three prior Disneynature flicks, “Earth,” “African Cats,” and “Chimpanzee.” The venerable Royal Geographic Society bestowed its Cherry Kearton Medal and Award on Fothergill. Here, he teams up again with Scholey, his co-director on “African Cats.” The duo once again generate incredible footage, which is knit into an organic narrative. This infuses the film with a sense of naturalism, certainly a welcome respite from CGI-dominated films.
The brilliant visual text is well complemented by the score. Composed by the acclaimed George Fenton (“Gandhi,” television’s “A Jewel in the Crown”), it efficaciously conveys the vacillations between impending menace and mirthful bear cub antics.
The film’s biggest flaw is the dubious choice of John C. Reilly as narrator. In such Will Ferrell vehicles as “Talladega Nights” and “Step Brothers,” Reilly’s performances have devolved into abject buffoonery. While Reilly’s voice may be amiable, it is woefully lacking in gravitas. It compares unfavorably with the euphonious and authoritative offerings by prior narrators, such as James Earl Jones, Patrick Stewart, and Pierce Brosnan.
Reilly is not responsible for the dialogue. However, at times, it does seem that the screenwriters have dumbed down the script to fit his persona. This is epitomized by a line in which Reilly likens an act of ursine behavior to his father watching television. The gratuitous intrusion of anthropomorphism and modernity is unfortunate.
A few caveats should be considered by parents. “Bears” has been rated G by the MPAA. In theory, that means the film has been determined to be suitable for all ages. However, the film includes scenes of intense peril, including the threat of cannibalism. This may prove too stressful for some preschoolers. Moreover, despite its abbreviated running time, the film may exceed the attention span of young tykes.
Older, more savvy children may be puzzled by certain aspects of the film. For instance, there is no evidence of a biological father for Scout and Amber. In actuality, male brown bears practice serial monogamy, lasting only a week or so. With this in mind, parents should be prepared for some potentially embarrassing questions about mating behavior.
Disneynature created a lesson plan, designed for teachers of grades 2 through 6. However, it is readily available to the general public at nature.disney.com/bears/educators-guide. Parents may consult these materials to enhance the potential didactic value of the film for their children.
Despite its salient flaws, courtesy of stunning footage and an evocative soundtrack, “Bears” emerges as an enjoyable experience for older children as well as adults.
“Bears”: ★★★ G, 77, minutes.
Nathan Lerner welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.