We’ve all seen images of brown bears planted amid the rush of cascading waterfalls, just waiting for leaping salmon to furnish them with a handy meal. It’s Alaskan iconography, a nature channel staple, and even comedy fodder for a Legal Sea Foods spot. The makers of the wildlife feature “Bears” want to give us another look at this familiar feast, but also at the challenging, yearlong road that leads to it. And since the film comes from Disney’s nature documentary division, they want to do it as an animal-family portrait overflowing with anthropomorphic appeal.
Hence the on-the-nose choice of cuddly-bear character actor John C. Reilly (“Wreck-It Ralph”) as the film’s narrator and occasional “voice” of its subjects. Reilly opens by introducing us to new mama bear Sky and her cubs Scout and Amber, initially glimpsed in their winter den through alien-looking close-ups of coarse hair and postnatal pink features. Soon they’ve emerged from their hibernation hideout into massively mountainous, snow-capped surroundings — remote, 4 million-acre Katmai National Park and Preserve. And they’ve got a mission with stakes that are spelled right out: Sky needs to get to that salmon run, fatten up, and keep her milk flowing, or a statistic about one in two cubs not making it might have sadly direct relevance. “Little Scout and Amber’s survival depends on it,” Reilly says dramatically.
The cuteness and the narrative peril kick in immediately. The family makes its trek down to lower elevations, and Amber hitches a lift on Sky’s back rather than scramble to keep pace. Springtime avalanches, we’re told, are a danger — and the filmmakers impressively make their point with shots of powdery whiteness exploding down a mountainside, the bears right there at the edge of the frame.
There are a number of false alarms, though. Working with a running time roughly twice as long as science museum movie fare, documentarians Alastair Fothergill (“Chimpanzee”) and Keith Scholey (“African Cats”) keep teasing threats to maintain their storytelling flow. There’s a powerful moment when it looks as though Chinook, an enormous, hungry “outcast” bear, may have made poor Scout part of that dreaded 50 percent casualty rate. But a few other scenes feature Sky, in protective-parent mode, bracing for bear or wolf attacks that never materialize. On some level, kids may wonder what’s up with all the fake-outs, while grown-ups might idly speculate that, say, a close-up on a wolf’s eyes could be masking a sleight-of-editing snarl.
Not that nitpicking opportunities are what bring us here. We’re here for the spectacular high-definition shots allowing us to distinguish each individual clump of river-matted bear fur. And to see footage of Scout romping on a muddy beach with a playfulness that makes Reilly’s voice-over dialogue seem like a completely natural fit. As with all of Disneynature’s features, there’s astonishing documentary work on display in “Bears” — but a leaner, less conspicuously structured view of the wild might have had even greater impact.