Earth Day arrives every April with a highly anticipated new Disneynature feature and for me, great trepidation. While I look forward to stunning cinematography, I always dread the inevitable—at least one animal will die. The Disney team taught me this way back with the animated feature Bambi where I joined millions of kids by feeling saddened, if not traumatized, when the title character loses his mom. Fast forward decades, and I still get attached to every adorable animal on screen. All those years failed to make me better at coping with their fates.
Nonetheless, I braced myself and watched Polar Bear, opening on the Disney Plus channel to celebrate nature and push to preserve the environment needed for the animals’ survival. The Arctic’s melting ice proves a great threat to the bears, whose lives seem hard enough without climate issues. Spending years tracking a female from her days as a cub through her own motherhood, filmmakers capture the bears’ struggles for food and shelter.
Using techniques proven on other projects like Penguins, the team follows their subject closely but unobtrusively, catching behaviors ranging from playing to hunting. Allowing for a family audience, the filmmakers leave out the blood and guts of dining. But neither do they ignore harsh realities, alerting both young and old audience members to some of life’s sad truths. Officially a documentary, Polar Bear steps into some fantasy by anthropomorphizing, using narration by its lead subject.
Providing human thoughts proves easy with expressive bears, whose antics often resemble those of people who want to play, relax, eat, and survive. Catherine Keener steps in as narrator, taking on a thoughtful and calm tone for her bear. The overall impact celebrates the animals and offers connections through Polar Bear International, a group working to save their lives.