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Family Movie Review: Bears (G)

The documentary (helmed by the same directors who made “African Cats,” Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey) was filmed at the expansive Katmai National Park in Alaska, which covers more than 4 million acres. It focuses on a mother grizzly bear, Sky, who had two cubs, Scout and Amber, during hibernation; in those winter months, her fat reserves helped her produce milk to feed the cubs. But now that her months of hibernation are up, she has to lead Scout and Amber down from their hidden den in the mountains to the valley below, where she needs to find food for them to gorge on before hibernation rolls around again.

The challenges are numerous. As a female bear, Sky isn’t as large or ferocious as male bears, and protecting herself and her cubs from them is a priority. Additionally, there are other predators—like wolves—roaming about, and she has to protect her cubs from them, too. As cute as Amber and Scout are, furry balls of fluff that like rough-housing with each other and riding on their mother’s back, they’re defenseless against other animals that are trying to eat them. So Sky has to find food for the cubs, find food for herself—specifically, rivers where salmon will be returning to spawn, so she can build up her fat reserves before winter—protect herself and protect the cubs, all at once, while traveling countless miles through the Alaskan wilderness.

Oh, and did I mention the avalanches? Because she has to avoid avalanches, and those are a whole other kind of terrifying.

What Disneynature does so well is incorporate education into their narration without it seeming clumsy or clunky; I walked away from “Bears” knowing the speed of an avalanche (80 mph), how much fish Sky should eat each day to build up enough fat for the winter (90 pounds), and how much alpha male bears usually weigh (1,000 pounds). But as helpful and informative as that is, it’s coupled with the narration’s attempt to humanize these bears so that kids can understand nature, with the assumption that they couldn’t without kitschy asides.

First, there are the names given to the bears (Sky, Scout, and Amber all seem fairly random, no?), and then there are the jokes made at alpha bear Magnus’s expense when he tries to claim a female bear as his mate (“He’s got no game … put a little mystery into it!” admonishes Reilly), and then the human characteristics that Reilly assigns to various animals. As bears lounge on the beach after gorging on salmon, Reilly cracks, “This guy looks like my dad when he’s watching TV,” and as Sky and Amber eat some fish together, Reilly calls it “a little mother/daughter sushi date.” Narration of this kind becomes more pervasive as the documentary continues, and although it doesn’t take away from the beautiful imagery, it does seem to send a mixed message to audiences: Are these bears majestic in their own way? Or are we only watching them to pretend that they are just like us? (It’s the ultimate debate discussed in “Blackfish,” a documentary about SeaWorld that you must see immediately.)

Nevertheless, the visuals are beautiful: an avalanche is shot from numerous angles (above, below, in parallel, and so forth); the mud flats revealed along the Alaskan coast are like a hidden environmental gem; there are meadows full of wildflowers; salmon swimming and then jumping through waterfalls; and bald eagles clustered on trees, to name a few. It’s an uneasy balance when coupled with Reilly’s humanistic narration, but for the most part, “Bears” should give your family something to talk about this Earth Day. And hopefully your children will remember more than just the stuff included for humor, like the extended sequence of salmon jumping up from the water and accidentally hitting bears in the face.

Enjoy reading this review? Check out our roundup of what other films are opening this week.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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