We don’t expect existential terror from a movie like "Disney’s Bears," but then, if we always got what we expected from movies, we wouldn’t have to go see them in the first place.
The latest faux-documentary from DisneyNature, "Bears" is a newsreel-ish quickie that runs about 75 minutes in length. (For the most part, the film appears to be presenting real in-the-wild footage, but many of these shots have clearly been staged, manipulated, and/or presented out of context.) The picture watches passively as a mother bear tries to eat well enough to ensure that she and her two new cubs will survive through the coming winter. It’s a Disney-financed documentary about baby bears, so obviously, there are plenty of moments that make us say "awh" -- but there are also plenty of moments that have us recoiling in horror at the cruel, uncaring violence of nature.
Skye and her kids, Scout and Amber, emerge from their den as the film begins, the mother leading her cubs out into the wild. It’s literally their first time experiencing the outside world, so the babies marvel; at the snow, at the terrain, at the sun. (The film, in kind, presents us with loving -- and admittedly somewhat breathtaking -- sweeping shots of the mountain-laden landscape.) Soon enough, though, their delight is subsumed by an unending deluge of tragic, natural events: A wolf tracking their every move, explicitly aiming to snatch up one of the babies for a quick meal. A couple of violent male bears who also wouldn’t hesitate to take a chomp out of the youngsters. A largely unsuccessful search for their ideal salmon-eating spot, which leaves them struggling to survive off of scraps like mussels. The bears even contend with a rising tide that just happens to separate child from mother, leaving the former at risk, moments away from experiencing a chilly, lonesome death.
This is relatively grim stuff to grapple with at any age, even from the studio that killed off Bambi’s mom. So the movie has someone employed to help keep us from leaving the theaters in an unfeeling daze: The great, ludicrous, and eminently human comedian John C. Reilly, of "Boogie Nights" and "Step Brothers" fame. He provides the voiceover on this short film, and he clearly indulged himself in many a humorous off-script riff. For a lot of the time, he’s dryly narrating the events -- something like, "And then Skye and the cubs went up the mountain." But then he’ll start providing a sort of heckler’s commentary, making gags about how life was easier for Skye when she was a "single bear," or pitching his voice up and pretending to offer the internal monologues of the bear’s ("Hey Mom; wait up!" and so on.)
Yet at the end of film, once winter descends upon the bears, we realize that Reilly’s riffs cannot distract us completely. It doesn’t constitute much of a spoiler to reveal that all three of the film’s central animals survive their year outside the den together. Yet what the film makes explicitly clear -- through voiceover and other, more visual means -- is that they’re the exception as much as they’re the rule. We’re bombarded with one clear statistic, and there’s no social imperative attached to it, either: Only half of all bear cubs survive throughout their first year. They’re killed by wolves, by other predators, by rapid waters. They’re eliminated at random by nature, by selection, by luck, their individual beings wiped from the earth in the twinkling of an eye. And no amount of jokes from the guy who starred in "Talladega Nights" can erase that.