Thursday, April 17, 2014

Review: "Bears"

Halfway between a nature documentary and a narrative film, "Bears" is a crowd-pleasing, family friendly flick about a mother bear and her two cubs struggling to survive through the changing of seasons in the Alaska wildlands.

I say "struggling" because there are numerous moments of peril where the giant grizzly bear, Sky, and her younglings Amber and Scout are stalked by a wolf, other bears and the ever-present threat of starvation. But nothing is terribly scary or permanent, so the movie should be appropriate for even the youngest audience members.

Obviously, real life in the untamed wild does not play out in a straightforward storybook way. So one definitely gets the sense that directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey are imposing a narrative that isn't necessarily there. There are plenty of editing tricks to make the danger seem more imminent than it is.

Start with the fact that the names used for the animals are gifted by the filmmakers, whose teams tracked the same bear family for a year. They even give monikers to the various predators who threaten them.

This can lead to some unintentionally humorous moments, such as when narrator John C. Reilly introduces a new "character" with heavy-handed drama: "This is Chinook, the outcast, banished from the meadow by Magnus."

Reilly, with his high voice and speech patterns closer to palooka than Shakespearean, would seem an unlikely choice. But he lends a bright, playful tone to the proceedings.

The photography is lush and gorgeous, showing the untamed hinterlands through the seasons of snow-bound winter, the blush of spring and the height of summer, with the promise of a feast of salmon. The latter isn't meant just for indulgent gorging; Sky must store up fat to see her cubs have enough milk to last through six months of hibernation, or they'll starve.

The high point is the salmon swimming upstream to their spawning waters, where Sky and other bears wait expectantly. The slow-motion footage is just wondrous, capturing serendipitous moments like a wriggling fish jumping right into a bear's outstretched jaws, or slapping against its forehead.

At a crisp 77 minutes, "Bears" is simple, uncomplicated movie-going. Whether it's a true documentary in the purest sense is open to debate, but not its obvious entertainment value.

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