The pattern was set in stone back in the days of Bambi and Dumbo. Animal movies from Disney were about personification, assigning human qualities to wild creatures and locking them into narratives of childhood innocence, loss, danger and, in the end, personal growth and safety. And the annual live-action films from Disneynature follow this to the letter. The "stars" are assigned names by a human narrator – in this case John C. Reilly going cutesy-folksy and informing the audience that the mama bear is named Sky and her two cubs are to be called Scout and Amber – and they're depicted as living in a world constantly threatened by other animal villains. Here the nemeses are two mean male bears locked in a struggle for alpha status and a wily wolf that wants nothing more than to devour those fat little cubs.
And so be it. If aiming the entire project at the cognitive playing field of six year-old children is what it takes to spark the curiosity of that audience, then sure, anthropomorphize away. Even acclaimed director Jean Jacques Annaud’s excellent 1988 non-documentary feature, The Bear, indulged in the humanizing of non-humans. It’s a way in for everybody who's not already a bear.
Bears follows the mama and her cubs through the course of one year, from hibernation to hibernation, in the Alaskan wilderness. And their main conflict is finding enough salmon. The film is, in fact, structured like a race against time and starvation to locate enough fish – mom needs to eat about 90 pounds of it a day – so that she can, in turn, produce enough milk for the offspring during those long winter naps. Along the way they’re stalked by those two big wannabe alphas and that wolf, all of whom would gladly take a bite out of the kids given the opportunity.
You read that correctly: bears will eat other bears if they’re hungry enough. Skittish parents can relax, though; unlike in earlier Disneynature offerings like African Cats, no explicit circle of life trauma-moments are on display and the cubs are never shown to be in real danger of anything more than some mauling by their own mother. You can relax and enjoy the beautiful creatures in their beautiful surroundings. If anything, the closing credits footage that shows camera and crew people in very close proximity to the animals is the real freak-out, making you wonder which of them are in danger of suffering the same fate as Timothy Treadwell from Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. It’s weird, then, in 2014, to consider that Bambi and Dumbo may very well be tougher-minded films than this real-life story would ever dare to be.