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Walt Disney Motion Pictures
Sky has two cubs, Scout, seen here, and Amber. “Bears” follows a year in their lives.
Movie review

Tension high as mother, cubs struggle to survive

‘Bears’ ***

For the past several years, Disneynature has marked Earth Day by releasing a documentary celebrating Mother Nature. “Bears” is the studio’s latest nature doc with a twist. It’s more reality show than peer-reviewed research, and like any reality show, the creators have endowed their subjects with moxie, personality and drama.

Wildlife documentary pros Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey follow their well-established format (“Chimpanzee,” “African Cats”) of anthropomorphizing animals with human names, motivations and emotions, while still providing educational information and visuals so stunning, you’ll wonder how they were shot.

“Bears” opens with narrator John C. Reilly introducing a mama bear, Sky, and her two newborn cubs, Scout and Amber. Soon after, Reilly sets up the film’s central source of tension: odds are only one of the two cubs will reach its first birthday. With that grim statistic, the film follows Sky and her cubs as they journey from the cozy comfort of their den on a perilous trek through the Alaskan peninsula in search of Sky’s primary sustenance, spawning salmon.

But what’s a reality show without drama? Whenever Sky and her twin cubs survive one threat – an avalanche, angry male bears, a hungry grey wolf – another danger threatens to make good on the bleak ursine infant-mortality statistics.

Reilly lightens these sequences by cheerfully narrating the cubs’ antics without the manic comedy stylings that Tim Allen displayed in “Chimpanzee.” There’s plenty of imagined dialogue between the cubs and their mama, but Reilly’s charming enough to pull off the balance between educational tidbits and talking-animal shtick. The humor, it turns out, is necessary considering the number of tense moments.

Not surprising, then, that the often-jokey narration of “Bears” doesn’t focus on every aspect of a brown bear’s life cycle, as “March of the Penguins” or “Winged Migration” did for their avian subjects. For that, you’ll want to take advantage of the film’s extensive interactive guides and activity sheets online.

Parents, take note: The movie is rated G, but there could be tears, protests and loud questions from sensitive young animal lovers – particularly during one nearly unendurable scene, when a male bear pokes through fallen logs in an attempt to eat one of the cubs. Don’t be surprised if older kids, on the other hand, want to Google “filial cannibalism” the moment the credits roll.

As with Fothergill’s previous nature documentaries, “Bears” is a story of triumph and family. The spectacular cinematography (which took a year to capture, a process highlighted during the credits), the sometimes silly and sentimental narration, and the alternately cutesy and menacing score are all used to showcase the dramatic lengths the wildlife kingdom’s most famously protective mother will go to provide for her cubs.

All of that makes “Bears” a great pick not just for Earth Day, but for Mother’s Day, too.