Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Cinema File #338: "Bears" Review

Since 2008, the Disneynature imprint has been producing a series of nature documentaries featuring startlingly beautiful imagery paired with some of the most cloyingly cute footage of exotic animals you'll ever see. Its last foray into the untamed world brought us Chimpanzee, the story of a chimp in search of a new family who finds a fraternal/paternal bond with an older male. Perhaps in recognition of the higher estrogen production of this genre's likely audience, their new film Bears is targeted squarely at the soccer mom set, or maybe if the Sarah Palin line is still culturally relevant, the mama grizzles. If you're into this kinda thing enough to shell out money for a ticket, you'll no doubt be along for the ride as this mama bear protects her cubs against the sometimes harsh but always visually captivating perils of her domain. If not, you probably have very little reason to bother.

This is the first one of these Disneynature movies I've seen, at least in the modern era anyway. The only Disney nature documentary prior to this that I have experience with is the infamous White Wilderness, known for its deliberately cruel treatment of the animals it depicted, wherein the filmmakers decided to start throwing lemmings off of cliffs when they wouldn't fall willingly, cementing the long standing myth of boom and bust suicide. One hopes that they've cleaned up their act by now, or at the very least, that any attempt to exploit their subjects in this case would only end hilariously a la Grizzly Man. Then again, while I can't see them forcing bears to do anything they don't want to do, the film is no less manipulative in its attempt at turning this instinctual annual migration into a relatable story. I assume this is the norm, but the anthropomorphizing of these giant forest dwelling monsters is a bit on the nose, owed in no small part to John C. Reilly's exuberant narration.

Maybe I'm just cynical, but as soon as we start giving the bears names, least of all names like Skye, Amber, and fucking Scout, while this might be a convenient entry point for most people who want to see these animals with human traits, it just completely takes me out of the movie. Its not just that its pandering, but its completely unnecessary and really a distraction from what could have been a much more somber and mature piece. Much like the recent Walking With Dinosaurs, this is a beautiful visual experience ruined by the need to alleviate the boredom of people who can't just watch nature in all its glory without some goofy voice in the background spoon feeding them a heartwarming interpretation of the events on screen. The movie would have worked even as a story without the prompting or the silly voices Reilly often uses for the young cubs, and would have ultimately proved more solemn and majestic, befitting the creatures on display.

For the record, and much to my surprise and delight, its not all mushy motherhood and cute kids at play. There are more than a few bears in Bears, notably an entire B story dedicated to a whole tribe of them that is mostly male dominated, and it features quite a few epic bear on bear fights to keep husbands, fathers, and precocious young boys in the audience from falling asleep. Just enough maybe, as at its core, this is a movie designed to function basically as Mom Porn, inspiring every mother in the theater to see themselves in Skye's dogged tough love approach to protecting her children. Or at least, that's what the movie wants you to take away from it as it ascribes motives to these characters they couldn't possibly have, and coincidentally finds one of the bear families that manages to actually find enough food to survive, as opposed to the many that presumably don't, or the many that would lose one of the kids along the way to a hungry wolf or cannibalistic bear.

Oh yeah, that's right, the movie implies that bears regularly resort to cannibalism when they can't find enough salmon, which for my money would have made for a much better movie. Speaking of better ways to do this movie, I couldn't help but feel like this might have been a lot more heartwarming if it were called Disneynature's Salmon, but apparently the emotional journey of the noble fish to reclaim their birthplace and propagate their family, swimming against the current in a metaphor for the uphill battle we all face in life was deemed less interesting than the plight of the giant furry beasts who try to eat them along the way. Kind of depressing in retrospect, but hey look, cute bear cubs! I hope they make it, otherwise the large and seemingly well stocked film crew observing them might come across like dicks for just watching them die and not helping them out in any way. Happy Easter everybody.
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