Directors: Alastair Fothergill & Keith Scholey
Editor: Andy Netley
Narrator: John C. Reilly
MPAA Rating: G
Year of Release: 2014
Country: U.S.
Bears Blu-ray
BearsHaving already explored the worlds of the deep ocean, African cats, and chimpanzees, Disneynature has now turned its attention to the world of brown bears in Alaska, focusing on a year in the life of a mother bear named Sky and her two newborn cubs, Scout and Amber. In expected fashion, the film deftly mixes documentary education with heart-warming anthropomorphism, thus simultaneously bringing us into the rarefied world of wild animals that few of us will ever witness first-hand while also ensuring that we see the animals first and foremost in cuddly, relatable human terms. Co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, who previously worked together on African Cats (2011), construct a compelling 78-minute narrative out of more than 400 hours of footage, focusing on the age-old trope of “the journey” to give the bears’ plight for survival a sense of sincere thematic heft. We’re not just watching animals in the wild, but rather a variation on any number of hero-centric literary classics.

When we first meet the bears, they are just awaking from their winter hibernation, after which they must traverse Alaska’s snowy mountains to find food, a mission that drives all of their actions for the next six months. The film lays out in no uncertain terms that the potential for death is literally everywhere; one of the first bits of narration we hear is that more than half of all bear cubs don’t survive their first year. Through the course of the film we discover all the various means of demise that might keep Scout and Amber from making it to year two, including a conniving wolf, other bears who are not above cannibalism if hungry enough, and, in one instance, the tide, which threatens to drown one of the cubs who picks a bad spot to take a nap. Yet, even though one of the structuring narrative devices is imminent death, the tone of the film suggests that all will be well in the end, even when the bears are threatened with literal starvation.

As with Disneynature’s other docs, Bears is nothing if not visually stunning. The footage captured by the team of filmmakers is frequently magnificent in its raw beauty, which isn’t surprising with the wilds of Alaska as the story’s backdrop. The footage is both epic and intimate, with incredible close-ups of the animals that could only be captured with true physical proximity, as well as gorgeous long shots that place the bears in the grandeur of the natural world—towering snow-capped mountains, plummeting waterfalls, expansive meadows, and dense forests. Some of the film’s most impressive images come from a sequence in which the bears attempt to dig up mussels and clams in a mud flat revealed at low tide, with one shot that shows the water slowly creeping back into the mini-valleys of mud taking on an aura of surreal beauty, as do many of the extreme slow-motion shots of bears catching salmon or fighting each other for dominance.

While most of the previous Disneynature docs have gone the route of overt respectability in choosing a narrator, hiring the likes of Meryl Streep, Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Stewart, and Pierce Brosnan to lend their indelible pipes to the voice-over, Bears is narrated by John C. Reilly, who has made a career playing mostly outsiders and goofballs in both dramatic and comedic films. Reilly gives the film a sense of genuine aw-shucks amusement, finding offbeat humor in the bears’ often comical antics. He seems to be particularly fond of narrating what he imagines to be the thoughts of Scout, the cub who is more daring and adventurous, but he saves some of his best lines for throwaway moments, such as a shot of a giant bear falling asleep after having just consumed a massive amount of salmon, which Reilly compares to his father falling asleep in front of the TV. However, when things turn more serious and life is on the line, Reilly brings on the gravity, but never for too long, which keeps Bears jaunty and entertaining. Even though death is everywhere, the film’s lasting message is the simple beauty of survival.

Bears Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy HD Combo Set

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish, French
  • “Welcome to Alaska” featurette
  • “The Future for Bears” featurette
  • “A Guide to Living With Bears” featurette
  • “How Did They Film That?” featurette
  • “Carry On” Olivia Holt music video
  • DistributorWalt Disney Pictures Home Entertainment
    Release DateAugust 12, 2014

    Just as it did in theaters, Disneynature’s Bears looks absolutely spectacular in its 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray presentation. The digital-to-digital port is a stunner—mostly flawless and amazing in its detail, from the extreme close-ups of the bears’ ragged fur, to the soaring helicopter shots of the snowy Alaskan landscape. Colors are bold and beautiful, and contrast is spot-on. Couldn’t ask for a better presentation. The same can be said of the immersive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtrack. John C. Reilly’s at times humorous narration is nicely anchored in the front soundstage while the surround channels are used to both open up the musical score and to bring us into the world of the bears with a plethora of ambient environmental sounds. The subwoofer doesn’t get a consistent workout, although there is some serious work on the low end when an avalanche pours down a mountain and when the bears go at each other.
    With a nature documentary like Bears, the behind-the-scenes details are often as fascinating as what winds up on-screen. And, while the supplements aren’t exactly exhaustive, the four included featurettes (all of which run six to seven minutes in length) do provide a nice sense of how the filmmakers were able to capture so much amazing footage in the wild. “Welcome to Alaska” introduces us to the “beautiful but brutal” environs in which the film was made, with attention paid mostly to the day-to-day realities of shooting in a place where there are no roads. “A Guide to Living With Bears” focuses primarily on the guides who worked with the filmmakers as they shot the bears in the wild, while “How Did They Film That?” shows us how the filmmakers got some of the film’s most amazing shots among the 400 hours of footage that were shot (including that beautiful helicopter shot of Sky and the cubs emerging from their den and underwater shots of the bears swimming). “The Future for Bears” is more of a public service announcement that attempts to demystify bears and plead for their protection. Finally, the disc includes the Olivia Holt “Carry On” music video.

    Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Walt Disney Pictures Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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