What makes for a good Hollywood movie in 2014? Start by keeping out all the terrible things: computer-generated spaceships, bad-dialogue pornography, 45-year-old giant babies making two hours of fart jokes, and the usual plotlines about the end of the world or getting pregnant or being a robot. Bears is a surprisingly pleasant movie about wild bears and other critters living in the Alaskan wilderness.
Not much happens, which is a relief. They do not defeat a super-villain, a sequel is unlikely, and no critics will describe it as a subversive or sly take on Our Current Situation. Even the moron element of these Disney nature movies—the cornpone narrator—is a minimal offense. John C. Reilly, who happens to tell stories exactly the way my friend Greg McIlvaine tells stories in his children’s folk band the Hollow Trees, delivers the basic facts of bears, wolves, ravens and salmon within his campfire tale about the brave single mom, Sky, and her two cubs.
The bears come out of hibernation, trudge down the snowy mountains to the shore, and hang around the meadow and the mud flats eating whatever’s available (grass, clams, mussels) while awaiting the annual arrival of the salmon. And then they follow the salmon upriver to the spawning pools. Once there, they fatten up on fresh delicious locally sourced fish. It’s all beautiful to watch, from the grizzled old alpha bear to the cubs tumbling over each other, and for once the “outtakes” that accompany the credits are worth sticking around for: These shots show the crew, still and silent behind their big cameras, nearly within reach of the brown bears that can weigh a thousand pounds.
Within that rhythm of the seasons, snow and shoreline and salmon and snow again, there’s some minor skirmishes with big male bears and a persistent, scrawny wolf. Reilly makes it exciting for the kids without getting ridiculously melodramatic, which is rare in a narrated nature movie. It’s a whole lot better than the only other movie I saw this year, which was that boring comic-book movie Captain America 2, and both kids and parents agreed that Bears was a hell of a lot better than another empty cacophony about a comic-book hero.
The photography is beautiful, as are the bears and the mountains and fish that fill the screen. Filmed in the primal and protected Alaskan landscape of Katmai National Park and Preserve, the veteran crew of wildlife filmmakers were able to set up camp near the bears’ own summer beach camp. At least for opening week, Disney gave a cut of the box office to the National Park Foundation and other land conservation groups, so hooray for that.
It’s a long haul up to the landscape of volcanoes, wild rivers and pristine beach. But once you get up there in the summertime, you will see lots of bears, even from campground viewing decks on the Brooks River where some of the national park’s 2,200 wild brown bears routinely feed on salmon. When will I finally spend my long summer wandering the backcountry of Alaska, the wild season in the 50th U.S state I first promised myself the summer after high school back in the 1980s? The harbingers are piling up!
“Bears” is still in theaters, but the theater was half-empty on a Sunday afternoon in a neighborhood full of little kids, so go see a matinee before it’s replaced by Spider-Man.