The last time I visited Katmai National Park via documentary film, it was through Grizzly Man. This Alaskan nature preserve is where bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell met his end at the teeth and claws of one of his beloved animals. This is a very dark thought to carry into a movie as lighthearted and cuddly as Bears, but it stuck with me nonetheless. I can’t help but think that this film could only aid in molding children into possible future Treadwells – people with no real understanding of nature’s savagery, people who anthropomorphize animals too much.
That is, after all, exactly what Bears does. It takes these animals and gives them cutesy names. John C. Reilley narrates their lives with his assuringly warm voice, often putting on silly impressions whenever a humorous moment crops up. It ascribes human emotions and motivations to the bears, ravens, wolves, and other animals. There is plenty of factual stuff provided about their lifestyles and environment, of course, but it’s very basic. A kid could learn everything this movie has to teach about bears in one classroom session.
This is nothing new for Disney, which has been producing documentaries under the label of “true-life adventures” since the ’40s. At the very least, the company is no longer killing animals en masse and creating urban legends in the process. Documentary filmmaking always entails the creative rearrangement of reality, but such films have taken this too far, especially since they’re allegedly in the service of education. And the idea that adding cloying narration and concocting fake narratives is necessary to hold a child’s interest is massively condescending.
It’s a pity, because Bears is at heart a gorgeous, involving film. The majesty of the Alaskan mountains and the feral grace of its wildlife are vividly captured on screen. Filmmaking technology has evolved to the point where the camera can capture up close and personal views of an animal without disturbing it, resulting in some wonderfully candid glimpses of the everyday lives of the film’s subjects.
The movie’s story follows a grizzly bear, given the name of “Sky,” and her two cubs “Amber” and “Scout” as they survive over the course of a year amongst the myriad dangers and curiosities of Katmai. To its credit, the film does not shy away from the harsh reality of survival of the fittest, and makes plain that an ornery fellow bear or a hungry wolf could end those adorable cubs at any moment. Rest easy though, parents – only salmon are seen getting killed here.
Our guide through this world is Reilly, who feels unnecessary. I’m confident that a silent cut of the film would be perfectly comprehensible. The manufactured storyline for the bear family would even remain intact. All the movie would lose is a lot of embarrassing groaners of jokes. The script for the narration is terrible in other ways, to boot. Sometimes Reilly is an omniscient narrator, but at other points he speaks from the point of view of the animals, and occasionally he talks as if he is relating events to the viewer in person, with allusions to his father’s TV watching habits. Everything about it is distracting.
Watching Bears, it’s interesting to ponder how much of the personality we see in “Sky” and her cubs is genuine and what is faked. A good documentary should not make you question such things, unless the point is to interrogate the nature of nonfiction storytelling. But a children’s nature doc probably isn’t going to hit that level of meta self-interrogation. Bears is very, very cute. It shamelessly coasts on the charms of its fluffy protagonists, and since I like baby animals, I went along for the ride. But if you want to teach your kid about bears, there’s probably a better PBS thing you can find somewhere.