Imax documentaries take us into the wilderness in ways we could only ever dream of experiencing in person, inviting us to marvel at the majesty of mother nature. Director Ian McAllister’s “Great Bear Rainforest” journeys deep into a remote, relatively untouched landscape where crystal clear lakes mirror the mountains and misty, mossy cedar forests tower above. With a cute albeit clumsy vanilla-colored bear as guide into this perfectly preserved place, and Canadian treasure Ryan Reynolds playing narrator, this riveting, revelatory short not only offers access to a delicate ecosystem hidden away along the Pacific coastline of Canada, but also educates on the conservation efforts of an indigenous community.
Mama bear Mox is part of a rare sub-species known as “spirit bears,” all-white bears “neither albino, nor polar” who dwell in the ancient rainforest of British Columbia. There are fewer than 200 alive today, so their protection is of utmost importance — especially to the First Nations people who’ve passed down the tradition of watching over them from generation to generation. But to get to know Mox, we need to understand her world and what daily challenges she faces. Foraging for food, facing down competition (like black bears and wolves) and battling against devastating obstacles are all part of her routine. Her landscape even extends into the ocean, where adorable otters, sea lions, and humpback whales frolic and feed.
Breathtaking vistas of both land and sea put us in a submissive state. We’re rendered powerless against the awe-inspiring imagery. It’s virtually impossible not to feel enveloped by the sights the filmmakers capture on camera. Every frame impresses, with no time wasted on filler. Eagles in flight stare straight into our eyes. Sea lions perform an underwater ballet, twirling among silver-skinned schools of herring. Black surf scoters, seen from above by drones, polka-dot the seascape as they dive below the surface to gobble up herring eggs. Salmon hurl themselves upstream, wiggling and writhing in slower-than-slo-mo, so one can almost spot the uncertainty in their eyes as they attempt to avoid the jaws of hungry black bears. Hans Zimmer and Anže Rozman’s musical soundscape complements these visuals with their blend of electronic and orchestral compositions.
McAllister, along with writers Jeff Turner and Don Hahn, intertwine several stories successfully, giving the documentary a surprisingly emotional kick. They depict traditions being passed down from one generation to the next — and the innovative ways this new generation approaches their stewardship role. There’s also time spent on the cultural celebration of herring season and the life this fishy annual migration brings with it. Peaceful, respectful co-existence between the human caretakers and the animal population is woven into the film’s fabric, spotlighting how the ecosphere can thrive through sustainable solutions. And finally it tells a heartrending story of a mother bear who suffers a life-altering change after a mudslide washes out her home — and the lengths she’s forced to go through to survive.
The scholastic facts are easily digestible, and made even more memorable when Reynolds delivers them with much-needed levity and charm. The few intense situations build at a steady pace so as not to overwhelm young members of the audience. Since living in the wilderness entails dangerous encounters, the filmmakers don’t shy away from the hardships Mox and other bears of the forest face. Some segments feel charged, including a black momma bear’s difficulties fishing from a riverbank dominated by an aggressive male black bear, or a scene in which Mox stands up to a different foe on her old stomping grounds, but it’s nothing that requires a heavy parental talk afterward about nature’s cruelty.