Nature, with Narrative: 'Disneynature's Bears'

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.

Disneynature's Bears

Director: Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey
Cast: John C. Reilly
Rated: G
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-04-18 (General release)
UK date: 2013-04-18 (General release)

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.