Nature is a beautiful thing. Vast and expansive, it is home to thousands of different species. As a child growing up, I was raised with a keen understanding and respect for nature. In spite of vague memories of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Bear, most of that education came from my parents. I spent many summers hiking in Algonquin Provincial Park from the age of two, and was taught that animals are not there for our entertainment. The elements and all those that inhabit the forest were beyond my control, and as such needed to be treated with the utmost respect.
Disney Nature is attempting to bring this kind of education to children through their films. Thus far, they’ve brought us Earth, The Crimson Wing, Oceans, African Cats, Chimpanzee, and Wings of Life. Meryl Streep, Tim Allen, Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Stewart, Pierce Brosnan, James Earl Jones, and Ken Watanabe have narrated this wide array of nature documentaries for children. They’ve attracted a great deal of attention. What better way to educate kids about different species that pepper our planet? If their latest endeavor, Bears, narrated by John C. Reilly, is any indication, they should choose to stick to one side of the spectrum. Blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, Bears creates a problematic discourse around the very nature of nature itself, successfully creating a hyper-anthropomorphized depiction of a wild animal and dubbing it factual representation.
Bears follows the first year in the life of two young Alaskan Brown Bears. Their mother attempts to protect them against the elements, starvation, and predators as they make their way to the salmon ponds in order to fatten up for their long winter hibernation. This would make for an interesting documentary on its own accord. With the ability and necessity for camera crews to acclimatize themselves to their subjects over the course of several weeks to months before filming, a great deal of outstanding footage is at their fingertips. However, the footage doesn’t speak for itself, and instead we’re given a fabricated narrative.
This is the Disney-fied plot: Young first-time-mother Sky is leaving her den after a long winter’s sleep. In tow are her two baby cubs, Scout and Amber. Amber’s a mamma’s girl, as she likes to stay close by and ride on Sky’s back. Scout is a rambunctious adventurer just looking for a role model. Along the way, they get help from a cunning sparrow, and evade the attacks of Alpha male Magnus, rogue exile Chinook, and the ever watchful wolf Tikaani. Over the course of a year, Sky will learn what it means to be a single mother of two, and Amber and Scout will learn some of life’s most valuable lessons.
They’ve managed to construct a harmful dialogue surrounding a fierce and unpredictable species. While the film has its educational moments, it feels more preoccupied with character analysis and making sure kids can relate. Kids shouldn’t relate. These are bears. Not friends. And this isn’t The Jungle Book or Dumbo. These are real bears, and while they may learn from experience, they run predominantly on instinct.
A forceful soundtrack dominates the foreground of the film, playing plucky music to ham-fistedly illustrate the various narrative elements in play. It’s impossible to ignore, and incredibly leading.
In its 86-minute runtime, the producers of the film spent more time endearing us to anthropomorphized bears than they did teaching us about the nature of what they were facing. The very real threat of these cubs being eaten by looming predators – including other alpha bears – is handled with damaging brevity. As the threatening wolf Takaani lurks behind this small sleuth, we’re merely made to think of him as Kaa, the Snake from The Jungle Book, as opposed to a real threat. There’s no explanation as to what type of wolf he is, if he has any natural predators, or why he’d be picking on bear cubs in the first place. We’re simply told that he does, and that’s expected to be enough. Enough for a child, anyway.
As the sleuth – a term never used in the film – finds its way to the meadow below their winter home, bears abound. As such, young Scout begins his search for the perfect role model, the ultimate bear to emulate and base his life on. Bears don’t have role models. While they do learn from experience and by exposure to other bears, they do not crave the leadership of a mentor figure. What’s worse is the injection of sexual politics and a damaged feminist agenda into this discourse. Only the male bear searches for a role model, and only the male bear frolics curiously, getting rambunctious and dirty. Young Amber likes to ride on her mother’s back instead of walking, as all good girls do.
Through anthropomorphizing these animals, not only are they imposing human social norms onto bears, they’re also creating damaging dialogues for children. Girls don’t get dirty or play rough, only boys do. In a swift attempt to rectify the damage, they posit Sky as Scout’s role model, the one that was with him all along! Feminism has no place in a nature documentary, no matter what age range it’s meant to appeal to. Sexual politics do not belong here, as they do not exist here. Genders have roles for very specific reasons, none of which are touched on or discussed. They’re simply masked by preconceived social norms that have no bearing on nature. Mama bears aren’t single mothers, and Sky is no victimized woman. Female bears are the only ones that raise their young. They don’t explain this, either.
These bears aren’t villains or heroines. They are not victims of one another. They are part of a natural order and a food chain. This film, however heartfelt, ignores this fact. It’s a lie of omission to help children believe bears are, in a way, like us. They are nothing like us, and to pretend to draw such comparisons is hugely damaging and irresponsible. It paints them as playful pets or friendly toddlers, and they are anything but.
Ultimately, these characters are akin to Bagheera, Baloo, and Shere Khan before them. The animation in The Jungle Book facilitates the clarity of the fantasy. Bears, on the other hand, tries to humanize them in order to facilitate kids’ understanding, instead of giving them straight information in an understandable way. It’s afraid of its own shadow, and belittles its pint-sized audience. It talks down instead of encouraging growth, which feels lazy. Ultimately, the most prominent issue with Bears is that it masquerades fantasy as a factual documentary. It creates a false notion of reality that children do not need, and it betrays the truth of nature.