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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Bears


BEARS (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Alastair Fothergill & Keith Scholey,  2014

Sky, Scout and Amber

Three bears huddled on the snowy lopes  of a vast white mountain as a raging avalanche crashes down alongside them. Fish fighting their way upstream in a glistening river, with one spunky salmon rising up from the spume and spray to nearly swat a waiting bear. A mama bear bravely standing between her two threatened cubs  and a renegade clanless bear who circles and circles and wants to make a meal of them.

Bears, the latest DisneyNature story-documentary  contains some of the most absolutely astonishing sights any recent film has given us — no matter how elaborate that other movie’s CGI and production design, and no matter how photogenic its stars. Here, the production design and effects, peerless, are the world around us, and the stars, nonpareil too, are the bears and animals themselves. At their best, these images have a power and a beauty, that most of today’s  sci-fi spectaculars and action extravaganzas can’t match.

The story — and Bears does tell a story, with characters, and drama and suspense, just like the ’50s  Disney nature documentaries The Living Desert, The Vanishing Prairie and White Wilderness — follows a mama bear (a formidable lady named “Sky” by the filmmakers) and her two cubs (the rambunctious boy Scout, and the more demure girl Amber) through an action-packed year of their lives. We watch them, from the moment they awaken, curled up together, in the slumbers of hibernation, to their emergence form their winter refuge, to their quest for survival from mountain to seashore — in a saga filled with many encounters with other animals, some rewarding, some dangerous, all extremely picturesque and engrossing.

Bears are among the most simpatico of all wild (and sometimes dangerous) animals — largely because they are the inspirations for the world’s most well-loved cuddling toys. These movie star bears, except for Scout and Amber, don’t look necessarily cuddly. But most children, and their adult companions, should enjoy watching them all lumber across Alaska, facing wolves, oceans and possible starvation with equal aplomb. It’s an important, vital record of life on earth that’s also an amusing, absorbing, sometimes tense and thrilling entertainment.


That’s partly because Bears was directed and co-written by a genuine auteur of nature documentaries: the tireless Britisher Alastair Fothergill, who was the genius anthropologist/writer/filmmaker David Attenborough‘s estimable collaborator on TV documentary mini-series masterpieces like Planet Earth and Blue Planet. It was co-directed (and co-produced) by Fothergill’s new DisneyNature partner Keith Scholey, and co-written (and co-produced) by Adam Chapman. It’s a good show.


The Attenborough-Fothergill films (along with some of the other Attenborough-scripted and hosted series like Life of Birds), are, I think, the greatest nature documentaries yet made. If you haven’t seen them, you’ve missed one of the cinema’s true treasures — and their wonderful box sets and series belong  in  any well-stocked DVD library.

Bears, like its DisneyNature predecessors Chimpanzee and African Cats, is a sight to behold itself. In a way, it’s a recognizable ancestor of the Disney nature documentaries of the ‘50s, like The Vanishing Prairie, The Living Desert and White Wilderness. Those movies, like this one, spied on wild animals and built stories around them. But, good as they were, those pictures weren’t blessed with the superb technological resources and brilliant technology, and decades of wild-life camera savvy that are common today. And that Bears has.

Thanks to that technology and that new expertise, Bears does terrifically well what the movies do better than any other art form. It takes us right into another world, and into domains of Earth hidden from most of us for most of time, but here presented with a technological mastery which renders that less-seen world as clear as crystal and as plain as day. That‘s the territory of the bears of course — the brown bears of the Alaskan peninsula, as represented by  Sky, Scout and Amber, all of whom become as familiar to us, and as lovable and beguiling, as any other movie star, recorded by eight excellent cinematographers (including Sophie Darlington, John Shier, Gavin Thurston, Mark Yates, Warwick Gloss, Matthew Aeberhard, John Aitchison and Mark Smith) and helmed by a great (well, sometimes great) director.

As before, Fothergill deploys his resources with massive skill, and his camera aces and his recorders capture sights and sounds that we simply (or probably) haven’t seen before. He was at his best in Planet Earth, which I think is one of the greatest films ever made.  But though Fothergill plus Attenborough makes for one of the movies’ best collaborations, Fothergill plus Scholey is more of a good team, who craft movies that are fun to watch and entertaining, but that don’t make you gasp with wonderment, as you often do in the Attenborough films.

The Bears narration, here delivered with crusty-voiced good humor by comedian/actor John C. Reilly, is okay, funny, sometimes a little corny, while Attenborough’s narration is brilliant and exciting, and delivered with enormous enthusiasm and involvement. (Attenborough was the BBC executive who was responsible for Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s  The Ascent of Man, before becoming a mini-series on-camera TV star himself. And he has a breadth of vision and an engagement with life and art and history and science, that these new films mostly lack. When they hired Fothergill, I wish Disney had hired Attenborough as well, and that the two of them had gone on to make more films like Planet Earth and Blue Planet for the rest of all our lives. Bears, while no masterpiece, is a movie to see and revel in, but not necessarily to be inspired by. Or to cuddle, for that matter.

The engagement at Disney’s El Capital in Hollywood, which I caught, includes an onstage wild animal show, plus Wurlitzer organ pyrotechnics by Disney’s star theater organist and American Theater Organ Society “Organist of the Year” Rob Richards.  

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And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

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I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

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~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon