[21 April 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Back in the late ‘40s, as America was emerging from World War II, the Walt Disney company decided to do something daring. In deference to their fans who loved the fluffy fun animated efforts, the House of Mouse experimented, sending filmmakers out into the wild to capture nature as it was (or at the very least, how it was before it was cinematically shifted and manipulated). The films, beginning with Seal Island, were a massive success, and soon Buena Vista International’s True-Life Adventures brand became synonymous with high quality documentaries. The studio would even go on to win several Oscars for such subjects as The Living Desert, The Vanishing Prairie, and The White Wilderness and create dozens of educational shorts to use in classroom and other instructional settings (like NBC’s Sunday Night tradition, The Wonderful World of Disney).
As time passed, so did interest in this live action division of the company. With the death of Wonderful World, there was little outlet for such off-line corporate product. Fast forward a few years and True-Life Adventures was DOA, only to then be reborn - so to speak - as Disneynature, a French film division which marks the studio’s only subsidiary established outside the USA. Perhaps best known for working with the BBC on Earth, as well as the follow-up films Oceans, African Cats, and Chimpanzees, the label is back with another nature plus narration effort, the contemplative and crowdpleasing Bears. While the material may frequently fall outside the safe and secure strictures of a “family” film, the movie itself is a decent, if derivative, journey into the backwoods of Alaska.
The storyline (concocted for the film via editing and a script read with expert appeal by Wreck-It Ralph himself, John C. Reilly) centers on Mama Bear Sky and her two cubs, Amber and Scout. Having just woken up from a long winter’s hibernation, they must make their way down from their mountain in order to find food. Over the course of the next year, our two little bruins will grow up, learning about such delicacies as fresh caught salmon and dangers such as aggressive Alpha bears. There’s also harsh terrain, sneaky predators, and the always difficult concept of growing up to contend with. While the threats both actual and potential play real, this is a Disney product, after all. The G rating is remembered and reestablished over and over again.
As a result, Bears feels a bit slight. Even at 77 minutes, it begs to be trimmed by about 10 and stuck somewhere on one of the House of Mouse’s many cable networks. The visual element is amazing, captured in close-up detail that really accentuates the magnificence of these creatures. The plotting, however, it pat, and a bit abrasive. We get moments of family nuzzling balanced against an angry male bear who sees Amber and Scout as juicy, delicious cub steaks. For every pitfall, there’s a moment of forced pleasure. Disney hopes that, through these films, a child’s imagination and sense of wonder will be awakened. One visualizes, however, parents having to shove their sleeping pre-adolescents into consciousness during a screening. Bears is not boring, but it is antithetical to the way kids function in 2014.
In fact, the whole concept may be too antiquated and old fashioned to truly work. Let’s go back to the aforementioned digital domain, shall we? There are at least a half dozen channels catering to this type of product and almost all of them either take a shockingly similar approach to the one offered up by Disneynature, or they manufacture even more fake melodrama and horror to keep the dwindling viewership riveted. Kids see more wilderness death on a daily basis than Bears even begins to hint at. There’s more graphic, exploitative TV footage, backed by a real desire to drill certain obvious lessons - nature is SCARY! - into the audience’s head, and just when you think everything is cool, a last act threat will turn up, causing everyone to either run for cover, or at the very least, cover their eyes before the commercial break.
Bears is having none of this. Bears is benign. It’s a slightly scary, always cutesy, pandering, but the good kind of pandering, product. There is little outside the nature elements that is organic here. Indeed, when you include the wealth of forced funny business, the edited for effect travails, and the overall elementary school level science, you end up with something Disney knows will satisfy the masses - which says a lot. Indeed, the entire family film genre has been corrupted by a focus group fixation which leaves challenge and fear far behind while pushing adorable and amicable. Granted, Sky, Scout, and Amber find themselves in quite a few uneasy situations. Since this is the House of Mouse we’re talking about, nothing is going to hurt our meme worthy family of fur.
Of course, none of this addresses the absolutely awe inspiring imagery on display. Alaska looks acceptably epic, the lush verdant lowlands giving way to true purple mountains majesty. The techniques used by the filmmakers, including situations that should send shivers down the spine of anyone with a wild animal phobia, give us glimpses so rarified and revealing that we can overlook the brain dead patter and simply enjoy the view…and, perhaps, this is the best thing to know about Bears, or the rest of the Disneynature line, for that matter. The House of Mouse isn’t out to play Bill Nye. It’s not going to rewrite your understanding of the instincts and issues that coming with living in the wild. Instead, as with Bears, they’re going to slap on a storyline and moderate the mean with as much kid friendly flash as possible. Besides, there’s enough real life nature drama to deal with elsewhere in the media. While clearly beautiful, it hopes to wear its banality all the way to the bank.