S*** in the Woods, by Tyler Smith
It would appear that I am just not meant to enjoy the output of Disneynature. The way they manage to put together a truly beautiful nature documentary, then completely undercut its power with a forced narrative and idiotic narration, does wonders to fully display what people find most frustrating about the Walt Disney Company. The studio is so eager to make something family friendly that they don’t allow their films to simply exist on their own terms. While I don’t necessarily think this about all Disney films, it is certainly true of their most recent nature documentary, Bears.
This film contains breathtaking cinematography and- like most great nature documentaries- makes me wonder just how the filmmakers managed to get these shots. We are told several times during the film that the bears we’re watching are very hungry. So hungry, in fact, that they are willing to eat each other. And yet at no point did any bear look at the cameramen and see a potential meal. I have no idea how the crew was able to pull that off.
But, of course, such is the nature of films like this. The crew manages to make itself virtually invisible to the animals, careful to never disrupt the environment around them. As such, the animals go on about their business and we are treated to footage that is utterly amazing.
And yet, as dedicated as the film crew is to invisibility, the studio has no such commitment. As exciting as it would be to just revel in the sights and sounds of wild Alaska, the studio decides that this film needs a story, with heroes and villains and comedy and peril. The inherent drama of the wild just isn’t good enough; we can’t be trusted to simply feel whatever we’re going to feel when watching these images, so we are constantly manipulated. We’ll feel what the studio wants us to feel, dammit!
This is accomplished- as it was in Chimpanzee– with some genuinely infuriating narration. Now, I am in no way opposed to narration in a nature film; it helps to frame what we are seeing and explain things we wouldn’t immediately assume. A great example of solid nature narration is in the Planet Earth series, in which David Attenborough’s somber tones gives us the information while also instilling a sense of reverence for the wonder we are seeing.
The narration in Bears throws that right out, choosing instead to embrace the inherent smallness of a kids story book. And while actor John C. Reilly somehow just seems like he should be narrating a documentary about bears, his offhand delivery takes the excitement and drama that we’re seeing and reduces it to something casual and unmemorable.
Not that I necessarily blame Reilly himself. As an actor, it is his job to follow the direction given. It’s entirely possible that, given better material, he would have done a remarkable job with this narration. But, as it is, the writing feels so haphazard and lazy- complete with giving voice to what the bears might be thinking- that I wonder whether any actor could pull it off well.
In the end, the film is still beautiful and almost worth seeing. Had the studio not been so desperate to turn the film into something else, I would have come away with a genuine sense of how amazing our planet can be. The sweeping vistas and snow-covered mountains are offset nicely by the extreme close-ups of the bears and their cubs, illustrating that sometimes nature can be as big as life itself, and as small as a pebble in a stream.
This is the impression that a great nature documentary should give. We should be invigorated as we watch, eager to go out and experience the natural world and, yes, work to preserve it. If only the studio had gotten out of the way, and realized that nature is at its best when left to itself, the film would have been much better. Instead, the studio does what so many people have in the past; it looks at nature for a moment before shrugging its shoulders and asking, “And?”