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"BEARS"
(2014) (Documentary) (G)


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QUICK TAKE:
Documentary: A year in the life of a mama bear and her two cubs in the wilds of Alaska is chronicled.
PLOT:
SKY is a female grizzly bear who awakens from her long hibernation and begins a long and arduous trek across the Alaskan wilderness to find food for herself and her two cubs. Her male cub is named SCOUT, and he is curious and adventurous. Her female cub is named AMBER, and she tends to stick much closer to Sky and not get into too much trouble as they journey to a distant shore in search of fish.

Along the way, though, they encounter three main enemies. There is a dominant male bear named MAGNUS, who is bigger and stronger than pretty much all of the other bears around and often bullies his way at the various feeding grounds. There is a rogue male bear named CHINOOK, who has been banished from most of the feeding grounds for being a troublemaker. He has his sights set on Sky's two cubs as possible food sources. So, too, does TIKAANI, a scheming wolf who seems to be tracking the momma bear and her young.

Sky also has to deal with the elements as she looks for a place narrator JOHN C. REILLY calls the "Golden Pond." There, the salmon are extremely plentiful and Sky can feast to the point where she builds back up enough fat to last her through another hibernation in which she will provide nourishment for Amber and Scout.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
I like bears. I really do. I'm all for 'em! My Pooh bear was my favorite stuffed animal as a child. Growing up, my friends and I imitated the Bad News Bears every time we took the field with a bat and glove. Heck, I've been called "Teddy Bear" all my life. But if you're going to make a documentary about "Bears" as Disneynature and co-directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill have done, you gotta give paying audiences -- especially strapped family audiences -- more than this.

The film follows an entire year in the life of Sky, a momma grizzly bear, and her two cubs, Scout and Amber. We see them emerge from a long winter's hibernation nap and immediately begin the long and arduous journey to the shore over mountains and through valleys where they hope the salmon will be plentiful and Sky can build back up her fat reserves so she can make it through the next hibernation.

And as Porky Tiberius Pig so eloquently once summed up, "Th-th-th-that's all folks!"

OK, there's a little bit more that happens in the film, but not much. It's really the age-old tale of Bear Meets Food, Bear Gets Food, Bear Loses Food, Bear Gets Food Again. Along the way, the bear family is threatened by a very large male grizzly, a not-quite-as-large male grizzly, and a shifty-eyed wolf. If we are to believe John C. Reilly's narration, all three want to eat Sky's two cubs. So, we have several scenes where the two male bears and the wolf approach Sky and her young separately, circle them, some growls and grumbles are exchanged, and almost always the "hunter" backs down and lumbers off. Only once does Sky have to really engage and tussle. And that's pretty much all it is, a tussle. Nothing really comes of these encounters.

Even more cynical, I have to think by the way the film is edited together, that at least a couple of these events weren't as they were portrayed on screen. There is a lot of footage of the cubs sticking close to Momma, of the bears Magnus and Chinook snarling threateningly into camera, of Tikaani the wolf skulking up close to the family like the sneak that he is, but precious little actual confrontation and only a few shots where "hunter" and "prey" are actually in the same shot.

Hey, this is rated G and intentionally so. So, I wasn't wanting or even needing some graphic clashes with bears gnawing on each other and drawing blood and snapping bones. But the story here is basically an 80-minute "munchies run," and the filmmakers are clearly trying to goose a narrative that just might not have been there. Scholey and Fothergill also way overuse slow-motion in the film. Yes, the flick runs around 80 minutes. But if you run the thing in real time, I'll bet it's closer to 50.

It was also a bit disappointing that we never learned many scientific and nature facts about the bears. Tidbits and factoids are thrown in every few minutes or so. But mostly you get Reilly's hokey narration where he tries to voice what the various male bear characters can't really be thinking. His lines are good for a few chuckles with the kids. But I would have liked to know more about the grizzlies, like "Are all of the males rogue bears -- i.e. deadbeat dads -- or do some stick with their mates and offspring?" and "Do the bears really resort to eating each other when deprived of sufficient food?"

On the positive side, there is certainly some wondrous Alaskan photography here. Scholey and Fothergill are at their best when framing the various bears against the state's majestic mountains and snowy vistas. There is a truly amazing avalanche that the bears watch from afar. I also really liked a late sequence in which numerous bears calmly stand at the bottom of a waterfall and wait for migrating salmon to come to them. Also a plus, grizzly bears make for very photogenic characters. You never get tired of looking at them even if they are not doing something terribly interesting. I give this a largely unspectacular 4.5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed April 12, 2014 / Posted April 18, 2014


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