It’s not terribly surprising that Polar Bear is the most upsetting Disneynature film yet. Perpetually somber in tone, it follows a mother bear and her two cubs as they struggle to survive the tundra as more ice melts with each year. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing images of polar bears struggling to find stable ice caps on which to rest and hunt ever since An Inconvenient Truth was released. The fact that conditions in the arctic have scarcely improved is maybe the most unfortunate detail.
The struggle of the family trio is not just the increasingly warm summers but the rapidly shrinking population of seals, their primary food source. When a surge of beluga whales enter the picture, there is hope for a sizable harvest. One of the best images in Polar Bear is an aerial shot that shows a dead whale that has washed ashore. The polar bears look comparatively diminutive in size as they hastily swim to try to get a piece of the precious blubber. It’s one of many incredible shots captured by Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson, both veterans in this space of nature and animal photography. Once again, they battle brutal environments and difficult terrain in order to get the perfect shot. They always come away with it.
The issues Polar Bear portrays are important ones, but that doesn’t make it a particularly enjoyable viewing. Where past Disneynature films (for better or for worse) anthropomorphize its animal subjects via celebrity narration, neither narrator Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich) nor the writers bother to assign names to the trio of polar bears with whom we spend 80 minutes. Considering images of polar bears swimming in uncharted waters sans any flat ice or seals is unnerving enough to viewers of any age group, perhaps this documentary would’ve benefitted from having significantly less narration.
Keener’s soft-spoken drawl is easy on the ears yet simultaneously overwrought with piled-on exposition despite little humanization of the bears themselves. As sequences of polar bear plight follow one after another, it’s as if at any point, Keener is going to launch into a predictable spiel we’ve heard before: “you can help. Call 1-800…”
Polar Bear admittedly tells a comprehensive, coming-of-age story, if you will, about bears learning everything from their mother before being sent off by the matriarch when they’re able to fend for themselves. Like so many things these days, it’s robbed of its escapist qualities due to the unfortunate circumstances of reality. It’s frequently breathtaking. But it’s bound to leave you more despondent than entertained.
NOTE: Polar Bear is now streaming on Disney+.
Directed by: Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!