The Alaska state tourism folks just got a big boost from Disney. The new documentary "Bears" is an hour and 17 minutes of inspiring mountain ranges, gorgeous meadows, rushing rivers and enough sweeping landscapes to make Peter Jackson and his New Zealand crew blush. If you don't feel like taking a trip up north at the end of it all, something might be wrong with you.
Oh, it's got bears in it, too.
"Bears" traces the adventures of a small brown bear family from the tail end of one hibernation cycle through Alaska's truncated spring, summer and fall seasons, and, assuming they can make it, through to another winter. You shouldn't let the term "hibernation" fool you. If you ever thought it was odd that bears managed to sleep through a major portion of the calendar year, this film would suggest they deserve it after fighting for their lives every waking day.
The mother bear, dubbed "Sky" by narrator John C. Reilly, is first seen deep within her den, nursing a pair of newborn cubs named Scout and Amber. As winter shows signs of breaking, Sky leads her cubs out of their high mountain den to cross the frozen range and descend to a friendlier climate close to the shoreline where the majority of their story takes place.
Here is where the clock starts ticking. If Sky and her cubs are to survive to (and through) their next hibernation, they have to get food. Their best-case scenario is to make it to a place called the Golden Pond, a fish-packed area upstream that is the Chuck-A-Rama of the bear world. But to get there, they have to compete with other bears, including a couple of testy males who would just as soon eat Sky's cubs and save themselves the trip. They also have to deal with a crafty wolf lurking around the area, and given the distance to the pond, they're going to have to count on a little good fortune to find additional food along the way.
"Bears" goes out of its way to employ fear and tension to illustrate the intense day-to-day existence of its subject animals, but viewers still reeling from the sadness of "March of the Penguins" can rest assured. "Bears" never gets quite that bleak. And even though it's a documentary, Reilly goes out of his way to make his narration energetic and child-friendly, often to the point that kids may not realize the movie is teaching them something.
Though Sky and her peers are the headliners, "Bears" gives its audience plenty of exposure to other animals, with gorgeous footage of wolves, bald eagles and some fish footage that is a lot more entertaining than you would think. The production is so impressive you'll be grateful for the outtakes montage over the closing credits that shows you just what the crew did to put this documentary together. It's almost as entertaining as the finished product itself and gives you an insightful feel for how they were able to get such intimate footage.
But the bears are truly the stars of the film, often shot in slow motion in powerful territory battles to underscore their enormous bulk. When they aren't fighting, they're bellowing at each other and baring teeth, a stark reminder that in spite of their cute and cuddly appearance, they are not a species to be trifled with. Of course, a humorous montage of the bears trying to catch leaping salmon in a rushing river serves as its own reminder: Even the kings of the forest can be fodder for slapstick if their timing is off.
Overall, "Bears" holds a crossover appeal that should provide legitimate entertainment for the whole family. It's a fantastic documentary of the beautiful world we live in and some of the incredible creatures that live in it.
"Bears" is rated G but does contain some frightening moments and more fish guts than a "Jaws" movie.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.