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Disneynature's Bears Blu-ray + DVD Review

Disneynature's Bears (2014) movie poster Bears

Theatrical Release Date: April 18, 2014 / Running Time: 78 Minutes / Rating: G

Directors: Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey / Co-Director: Adam Chapman / Writers: Alastair Fothergill, Adam Chapman / Producers: Keith Scholey, Adam Chapman

Narrator: John C. Reilly

Buy Bears from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy Instant Video

After their first two releases provided broad surveys of our planet's landscapes and waters, Disneynature seems to have settled on a narrower format: spending extended time with a small group of photogenic animals. That's exactly what this series of theatrical documentaries did in 2011's African Cats and 2012's Chimpanzee. After a one-year hiatus (which saw one title go straight to video),
Disneynature returned shortly before last Earth Day with Bears, whose title accurately indicates it arrives in the same mold as its immediate predecessors.

Bears documents a year in the lives of two newborn brown bear cubs and their mother in the Alaskan Peninsula. We open with the family of three in winter hibernation. When the mother, named Sky, and her two babies, Scout and Amber, wake up, they are hungry and in need of major nutrition. To get it, they've got to make a long, taxing journey across Alaska's thawing landscape in search of food, preferably large quantities of salmon.

The film's kid-friendly presentation, in which the bears are personified, is highly reminiscent of the True-Life Adventures films that won Walt Disney a number of Two-Reel Short Subject and Documentary Feature Academy Awards in the 1950s. Much of Bears seems fictionalized, an approach at odds with its nature documentary classification. Still, there is no denying that the film's directors, African Cats duo Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, and their crew have secured magnificent footage of these and other bears in their natural habitats. Somehow, these filmmakers have managed to craft an intimate portrait of the subjects, opening zoomed in on the bears asleep in a cave and following them on their assorted adventures.

In Disneynature's "Bears", a mother and her two young cubs go on a long journey in search of food.

In a gig seemingly born out of his voicing the titular hero of Wreck-It Ralph, John C. Reilly narrates the film with wit and fun. He provides the light tone the film usually demands, even speaking for the bears, primarily young Scout, from time to time.

The quest for salmon is not an easy one for this family, which encounters minor peril in avalanches, a rising tide, a lurking grey wolf and even two of their fellow bears. There's one fierce bear-on-bear fight you're almost surprised to encounter in the rare new film assigned a G rating by the MPAA. There's also the sight of bears catching salmon in their teeth and devouring them. By and large, though, Bears avoids harsh realities of nature. It's more interested in cute hijinks, like Scout getting his tiny paw stuck in a clam's shell, a raven treating himself to the bears' spoils, and the family settling for a meal of mussels covering rocks they turn over.

Par for Disneynature, the film is a feast visually and aurally. The vibrant photography includes dazzling time-lapse and motion-control footage of tides coming in and striking slow-motion shots of salmon trying to journey upstream.

Silly cub! Scout gets his claw stuck in a clam's shell. Grey wolf Takani often lurks close to the bears, posing a threat.

Though it runs a scant 78 minutes with end credits, Bears even stretches to reach that length. It belabors the threat of starvation the bears face, which is vocalized no fewer than three times. There doesn't appear to be any narrative being sacrificed to focus on the family's odyssey,
but that only renders the picture kind of one-dimensional and insubstantial. Nonetheless, like other Disneynature movies, this one is aimed less at bear enthusiasts and experts than the general public. It gives us a perfectly appealing if somewhat simple and sunny view of the ursine family unit. The scientifically inclined may scoff and nature doc purists may object to some of the trivial tactics taken (heck, screenwriters are credited). But it's hard to find anything too wrong with a feature film so unlike everything else released to 1,500 or more theaters this year and one that captures the natural beauty of our world and its inhabitants like few before it have.

After the strong showing of initial release Earth, Disneynature has seen its attendance decline. The line rebounded from its record-low, African Cats, with Chimpanzee, which opened a little wider and performed almost as well as Earth. Bears got the banner's second biggest theater count yet, but it still struggled to find an audience. Its feeble 10th place opening weekend haul of $4.8 M represented a series worst, but a small second weekend drop (which actually lifted the film to 8th place at the box office during the uncompetitive spring season) helped it to narrowly outpace African Cats for fourth place among the brand's five releases to date.

Another Disneynature documentary, Monkey Kingdom, has already been scheduled to debut on the next Friday-before-Earth Day, but one must wonder how long the brand will persist. It is so clearly at odds with the rest of the Walt Disney Studios' strategy, which is to go big with franchisable, merchandisable high-budget fare from Marvel to Pixar to Star Wars to Maleficent. I have two theories for Disneynature's continued existence at a time when Disney is virtually refusing to make small to medium movies. One of them involves honoring the visions of the late Roy E. Disney, who announced the line and championed it as part of a tradition he contributed to as a True-Life Adventures cameraman in the late-'50s. The other theory is that the franchise's public relations benefits, from loudly donating a portion of opening week ticket proceeds to an important conservation cause to simply promoting environmentalism and ecological awareness, outweigh the relatively minor financial losses suffered by this multi-billion dollar corporation.

Four months after starting its lackluster theatrical engagement, Bears hits home video in a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD Digital Copy set next week on a Tuesday overflowing with higher profile Disney Blu-ray combo packs.

Disneynature's Bears: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD Digital Copy combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Both: Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish), Dolby Surround 2.0 (Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
DVD Closed Captioned; Most Extras Subtitled
Release Date: August 12, 2014
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

I've already detailed how magnificent Bears looks and sounds, which should come as no surprise to those acquainted with Disneynature. The Blu-ray's colorful 1.78:1 video and highly potent 5.1 DTS-HD master audio instantly distinguish this from less technically dazzling documentaries. Both make this an apt choice for animal and nature lovers to use to discover the potential of their home theaters. The soundtrack especially entrances with its winning mix of pleasing score, crisp narration, and ambient noise (which at times seems to have been added in or sweetened later, rather than recorded live).

Jane Goodall declares herself a fan of Disneynature's "Bears" in "The Future of Bears." "A Guide to Living with Bears" reveals it never hurts to carry a flare when filming deadly brown bears.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Bears is joined by a quartet of HD short featurettes on Blu-ray.

"Welcome to Alaska" (6:07) discusses the remote region
where the filmmakers camped out to film the bears and the challenging trips needed to find their subjects.

"The Future of Bears" (6:37) considers what can be done to protect bears in the wilderness, picking up some thoughts from Jane Goodall on the value of this film along the way.

"A Guide to Living with Bears" (7:05) explains how guides helped the filmmakers get their predatory subjects to tolerate their presence and the steps taken to avoid potentially dangerous situations.

"How Did They Film It?" (7:23) asks the question that's sure to be on many viewers' mind. Behind-the-scenes footage illustrates how camera operators captured such intimate footage of these wild animals, utilizing everything from helicopters to skis.

Olivia Holt keeps calm and sings outdoors in her "Carry On" music video. Sky and her cubs brave the rain on the Bears DVD main menu.

Finally, we get a very short music video for Olivia Holt's "Carry On" (1:36), in which the teenaged singer (apparently the star of Disney Channel sitcom "I Didn't Do It") sings in the snow and on the grass,
settings matched in clips from the film.

For no reason more obvious than the fact that Disney now treats the still more popular format like a second-class product, the well under dual-layered capacity DVD here, the same one sold separately, only includes the music video in the way of bonus features.

The discs open with promos for Disney Movies Anywhere, Disneynature's Monkey Kingdom, Maleficent, and Disney Fairies' Legend of the Neverbeast. Rather than repeating these, the Sneak Peek listing plays ads for Disney Movie Rewards, Disney Parks, Sleeping Beauty: Diamond Edition, and Frozen: Sing-Along Edition, a foreseeable limited edition double dip coming this holiday season.

The nicely scored menu plays clips from the film in up to four rectangles whose dimensions are constantly changing. The Blu-ray doesn't support bookmarks or allow you to quickly resume playback, but it does remember where unfinished playback of the film ended.

Disney pulls out all the stops on this set's packaging. The side-snapped keepcase, which holds three standard inserts (including one with your Disney Movies Anywhere/Disney Movie Rewards code) alongside the two plainly-labeled discs, is topped by an embossed slipcover that catches your eye with the effects it applies to its tree bark design.

Got salmon? If so, these bears want some.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

While the general public is finding it increasingly difficult to notice or care about what Disneynature has to offer, the documentaries continue to boast a good amount of value. Bears maintains the line's agreeable standard with its now-expected mix of playful family-friendly entertainment and stunning high-caliber animal footage. For many, one viewing of this film may be enough, but the Blu-ray's outstanding picture and sound make a case for purchasing, with the set delighting as home theater demo material.

Support this site when you buy Disneynature's Bears now at Amazon.com:
Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
Brother Bear (2-Movie Collection) Brave The Jungle Book Yogi Bear The Fox and the Hound The Lion King Bambi
Disneynature: Chimpanzee African Cats Oceans Earth Wings of Life The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos
Bear Country Frozen Chasing Ice To the Arctic Born to Be Wild

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Reviewed August 8, 2014.



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