DISNEYNATURE: BEARS – Blu-ray review

With “Bears,” DisneyNature proves one thing beyond a doubt:  the studio that once “owned” the nature film market with its True-Life Adventures—imaginatively shot wildlife shorts and longer, Oscar-winning features that were made during the ‘50s—is more than halfway back to prominence.

The Alaskan cinematography in “Bears” is breathtaking, and the sometimes extreme photography really adds an intimacy to our understanding of these beautiful creatures. Couple that with perfectly paced scenic construction that builds suspense as we follow a family of Alaskan brown bears from the birth of two cubs through their first year of survival and you have a nature film that’s every bit as good as what Disney produced in the past—or, for that matter, what other studios are producing now.

The problem is with the narration.

I’m not suggesting that every nature film narrator should sound like David Attenborough, but John C. Reilly really seems an odd choice. Known primarily for his goofy roles and with a voice that people associate with Cal “Shake ‘n’ Bake” Naughton Jr. from “Talladega Nights” or Dale from “Step Brothers,” Reilly is like the reader who wants to entertain children so badly that he goes just a little overboard in his expressiveness and voice modulation. But it’s not just the way the lines are read. The uncredited screenplay for this 78-minute documentary is, as my teenage son put it, “childish.” He was being polite. What he meant was “stupid.”

The old True-Life Adventures brought families together, but who knew how difficult it was to balance personal, whimsical storytelling with a factual, knowledgeable narrative?

Disney pulled it off in 1957 with the 75-minute documentary “Perri,” which followed a female squirrel through a year of her life. The narration was mostly informative but there was also a wink or two from narrator Winston Hibler, whose deep voice and folksy manner provided an easy balance that made this True-Life Adventure work for adults as well as children. Hibler wrote his own scripts, and he walked a careful line between conveying information and infusing the narrative with emotion. I think that his folksiness was the key.

But the narration in “Bears” is, as my son said, simply “childish” in places—meaning that it’s clearly aimed at very small children, the way an adult will make funny faces to try to make a toddler laugh. The question is, why? Why narrow your audience like that, when the subject matter has such broad appeal?

I suspect that director Alastair Fothergill (“The Blue Planet,” “Earth”) is still trying to find the right balance and give Disney what their audiences want:  a nature film that’s not as austere as the BBC Earth productions and that has some life, some zest, some whimsy—to imbue the animals with personalities and tell their story in human terms, as the old True-Life Adventurers did. So far, he’s done that most successfully with “Chimpanzee” (2012).

But the cinematography is spectacular, whether we’re watching an avalanche in real time or catching panoramic shots of the bears’ Alaskan wilderness. One of the bonus features shows that photographers didn’t just screw on a long lens and call it a day. They were a lot closer to the bears than you’d think, and “Bears” provides some remarkable footage—like the opening sequence when we see newborn cubs as young as I’ve ever seen, filmed inside their mountain den. The bears are given names, and Sky mothers her two cubs, Amber and Scout, with love and tough love. Following them we learn about the hibernation pattern of Alaskan brown bears and see that their diet doesn’t just consist of salmon. There are clams to dig so mother’s milk will come in, and other bears and wolves to avoid. It’s all very enlightening and entertaining . . . except for that pesky narration.

I can envision some nature-lovers picking up this disc and then watching with the mute on and music of their own choosing—and then, when they need an explanation, cranking up the sound and hoping they didn’t catch one of those kindergarten moments.

“Bears” is rated G, and the box notes that Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund has made a contribution to the National Park Foundation “to protect wildlife and America’s national parks.” The film was shot in Katmai National Park, the same place Werner Herzog filmed “Grizzly Man.”

As with previous DisneyNature releases, “Bears” looks terrific in HD, with a beautiful AVC/MPEG-4 transfer that’s as pristine as can be. “Bears” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Colors are rich, and the long shots are postcard-perfect. It’s an impressive film, visually.

The audio is a standard English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that’s more than enough, given that the bulk of the soundtrack is Reilly’s voiceover.  Additional audio options are French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French and Spanish. The bass hibernates for most of the film, but again that’s because the soundtrack is dialogue-centric.

This combo pack comes with a DVD and Digital HD Copy, but there are also some short but worthwhile bonus features: “A Guide to Living with Bears” (explains how the production team managed to get so close without consequences), “How Did They Film That?” (a breakdown of some of the extreme shots that made it into the film), “The Future for the Bears” (a making-of feature with a conservation twist), and “Welcome to Alaska” (a site-specific behind-the-scenes feature). Rounding out the bonus features is a “Carry On” music video by Olivia Holt.

Bottom line:
“Bears” is an accomplished bit of filmmaking that would have been an unqualified success were it not for narration that periodically insults the intelligence of viewers over the age of eight. As is, it’s still worth seeing, the cinematography and scenic construction are that good.