Stephen Colbert — at least his character on Colbert Report — isn’t a fan of bears (his love of Papa Bear O'Reilly being the exception). In his eyes, they’re menacing, bloodthirsty maneaters known to top his tongue-in-cheek Threat Down list. The folks at Disney, on the other hand, are hoping you’ll take your kids to see a somewhat cutesy-fied version of the iconic animals, in a film where John C. Reilly (Step Brothers, Magnolia) occasionally speaks for them (presumably because as much as we enjoy the dulcet tones of Morgan Freeman, the guy needs a break once in a while, and so do we).
It's understood that the filmmakers — who also created the 2012 Disneynature release Chimpanzee — are working within the bounds of a kid-friendly nature documentary. Viewed in that respect, Bears is an entertaining look at a mama grizzly and her two cubs as they awaken from hibernation and go searching for food in the Alaskan wild.
While Bears may inspire children to appreciate nature, I’m not so sure it will get them to respect it. Respect as in understanding that bears are not big, dumb, hairy versions of you and me with a predilection for pratfalls. Winnie the Pooh is cute and cuddly. Paddington is cute and cuddly. But I’m sure Werner Herzog, who saw in bears “the overwhelming indifference of nature,” (see his sobering Grizzly Man) would agree that the real deal is cute only insofar as we deny their innateness. As much as the filmmakers enjoy anthropomorphizing them — a throwback to the Disney nature specials many of us saw as kids — know this: Bears are not your teddy, and you do not fuck with bears.
To its credit, Bears presents its target audience with lots of the less cuddly stuff: Bears fighting for dominance; bears sinking their teeth into freshly caught salmon. Some small children may be upset by scenes of a couple of male bears who stalk one of the cubs when he's separated from his mom. The two cubs, whom Reilly has named Scout and Amber, are cute. Clever editing amps up the tension, particularly between Sky, the mama bear, and some male grizzlies and a wolf that are presented as threats to her family.
The film’s images — Bears was recorded in the Alaskan wilderness — are crisp and often majestic. During one sequence, the filmmakers were fortunate enough to catch an avalanche in what looks like full force, and it’s something to behold. Later, we go underwater to get a close-up view of salmon during spawning season. In its brief running time, the movie patiently takes us through Sky and her cubs’ journey down a mountainside, along an Alaskan peninsula, and back again.
Hearing the voice of Wreck-It Ralph narrate this journey can be a bit jarring at first. But the quality of his voice — goofy as it is — demands our attention. The film’s credits sequence shows footage I wish they had included more of: scenes where the presence of the filmmakers is acknowledged. Even here, as we see the camera operators within mere feet of the bears, I would loved to have known how they did that, how they got so close to these beasts and what precautions they took. By the film's end, we might think that maybe bears aren't the “Godless killing machines” that Colbert warns us about, but still: they’re bears.