No one who sees “Bears,” Disneynature’s latest horror film disguised as a wilderness documentary, will ever want to be a bear. Bears spend their entire day — yea, their entire year — simply trying not to starve, or to become a meal for another animal (a larger, hungrier bear, quite likely). They wake up encased in snow. They slog across mountains to meadows to nosh on grass and dodge other bears. They fend off wolves. They try not to drown while clam-digging ahead of high tide. They are reduced to turning over coastal boulders to scrap for eels. Maybe, if they’re lucky, they can survive long enough to scoop up some salmon and trudge back up the snowcaps to crawl back into a hibernation cave, where they could starve while sleeping out the winter months. In Alaska.
It could just as easily be called “Fish,” for that is all the bears in “Bears” want to find. You really feel for the mother, Sky, and her two cubs, Amber and Scout, as they paw little black mussels off the sides of rocks like dried, crusted-on cereal, crunch crunch. It’s hard out there for an apex predator, at least until Mama can track down some proper salmon. Fish are full of protein and omega-3s and essential scales and such. They’re also enormous and glorious, and the slow-motion shots of Chinooks hurtling themselves up waterfalls on their way to spawn is one of the highlights of the film. The three hero bears spend so much time in pursuit of a proper fish meal that by the time they actually get to rip into one, as a confetti of burnished silver cheeks and flame-red gills, you’ll start to crave a salmon platter of your own. “Bears” is the perfect pre-dinner show before an 8-year-old’s first taste of sushi.
Mostly the bear’s life is for the dogs, all stress and bugs and scavenging. Narrator John C. Reilly tells us early on, during a rare relaxing moment in the hibernation cave, that about half of bear cubs die in their first year of life. It’s not hard to see why. Scout nearly drowns; Amber nearly gets her head crushed by a boulder her mother casually lets drop; both are set upon by a no-goodnik beta male bear. There are moments of real danger, such that even though you know it’s a Disney movie (and thus, that the parents are more likely to die than the children) non-fiction provides moments of actual peril. Think back to the previous release from Disneynature, “Chimpanzee,” also directed by Alastair Fothergill (sharing the credit in “Bears with Keith Scholey). Among the primates, the key early plot point was the death of the mama ape, leaving the little star chimp to survive on his own. To see a wolf get to, well, wolf a baby grizzly would be par, at least.
Those gut-dropping moments of possible carnage lend narrative heft to what otherwise could just be a series of astonishing shots. The beauty of “Bears,” contrary to its cuddly poster, is in fact how casually raw it is. The bear-on-bear fighting yields virtual spider webs of spittle stranding in the wind; the fish split apart like piñatas; bugs swarm the bears during their every moment of repose. At the center of the story is a charismatic family beset with peril. This is Disney without the princesses, and if the script tilts kiddie at times, it’s truly all-ages. Animals are magical even when — especially when — they don’t talk. “Bears” puts them right into your lap, savagely.