The quid pro quo thrown down by the Mouse House’s Disneynature series is pretty straightforward: If you can stomach the cheesy narration and the contrived storyline, you get a wealth of fairly glorious wildlife footage courtesy of “Planet Earth” auteur Alastair Fothergill in return. For the series’ latest installment, this proves to be an entirely fair trade. Though still clearly targeted toward the youngest of sensibilities, “Bears” is far less obvious in its pandering and desperate in its anthropomorphism than its 2012 predecessor, “Chimpanzee,” and thanks to its emphasis on actual ursine behavior, it seems unlikely to offend any attendant parents or zoologists in wide release.
Every production helmed by Fothergill (who shares director credit here with Keith Scholey) is bound to include at least one “never seen that before” moment of natural weirdness or grace. In “Bears,” the defining shot is an ultra-slow-motion, ultra-high-def image of an airborne salmon slapping an adult brown bear in the face with its tail. And though it occurs late in the film, it’s also rather representative of the pic’s goofy, G-rated goodwill throughout.
Shot over a year on the Alaskan peninsula, the film begins with a family of bears as they emerge from hibernation. Naming the mother Sky, and her young cubs Scout and Amber, the filmmakers will follow the trio as they journey down from snowy peaks to sea-level valleys and beaches searching for food. As the cubs gradually learn how to not get themselves killed, the family is threatened by a pair of adult bears — named Magnus and Chinook — as well as a marauding wolf, and the ever-thinning Sky grows desperate as she seeks sufficient salmon before the coming of winter.
Mercifully, the divvying up of various wild carnivorous animals into arbitrary heroes and villains is kept to a minimum (“Chimpanzee” went ape with it), and John C. Reilly’s amiable narration helps power “Bears” through its more unbearable one-liners. Surely some of the film’s various incidents have been creatively stitched together from stray bits and pieces of footage, but its central conflict is an entirely organic one, and rarely is any offscreen string pulling distractingly evident.
Indeed, the film is at its best when it simply allows the bears to be bears. The assembled ursine subjects provide plenty of incidental comedy, accidentally dropping rocks on each other and getting their claws stuck in clam shells, and at times they almost seem to be photobombing one another: As soon as the camera locks down on a Disney-perfect cub looking as angelic as a teddy bear, some slovenly adult is bound to lumber into the shot with a string of bloody spittle dangling from its muzzle.
In addition to the aforementioned salmon slap, the filmmakers capture a trove of striking images, from a swooping helicopter shot of the bears lording over a mountain summit while a massive avalanche rages beside them, to the gorgeous time-lapse photography of the Alaskan wilderness that bookends each sequence. Editing, sound and post work is all thoroughly professional.