There’s an optimism in every DisneyNature release, each timed to fall on Earth Day. No matter how embattled, threatened or tested nature is by a human race unwilling to switch off their SUV engine while we sit watching cat videos on our iPhone, a “nature will endure” ethos is the bullet point messaging.
But even on a film about a “Polar Bear?”
Veteran British nature documentarian Alastair Fothergill and his “Penguins” director partner Jeff Wilson give us a sober-minded call to action in this beautifully-shot film, empathetically narrated by Catherine Keener, who tells the story from an “ice bear’s” point of view, a bear with nostalgia for the less-climate-changed past.
“The home of my childhood is changing,” she notes. “The ice we depend on is melting away.”
That point is repeated in the film, as you’d expect from any movie documenting the state of “ice bears” — a clever bit of absolutely vital Disney re-branding — on a heating planet Earth. “Fire and ice” have been eternal foes is how she narrates the problem. “Fire is winning.”
“Polar Bear” takes us through this bear’s childhood, the ways Keener’s bear cub and her brother were taught to hunt and scavenge and survive in a climate which threatens them directly and indirectly. The ice the bears need is even more necessary for seals to breed and raise their pups. The bears need not just the ice to get from place to place, but the seals that need it make up a major part of their diet.
So we see things bears do to keep going between rarer and rarer whole meals — seaweed chewing, learning about “finding small scraps (bird nests) in hard times” and the like.
Hunting sequences depicted here are graphic, but not bloody. The omnipresent threat of gigantic menacing “males” to mothers and cubs — ursine cannibalism is on the rise — give the film a touch of suspense. But perhaps the saddest image is of the Arctic permafrost melting into a muddy muck in summers “that grow longer and longer.”
There’s no talk of giving up, of acknowledging that the last five years of reactionary anti-environmental revanchism in America and abroad — but especially in the U.S. — may have been fatal to the climate that’s been more or less constant for thousands and thousands of years.
Disney may be nagged into pushing back against its far right political allies thanks to a more gay tolerant workforce. But there are limits to what the Mouse that Ate Florida will do to poke the bears of Florida politics, whom they have financed and propped up just to maintain their corporate freedom of action in the overdeveloped swampland of Central Florida.
A DisneyNature film a year doesn’t change the corporate ethos that would make these sprawling parks more green — allowing light rail that would get tourists from airports, hotels and train stations to their cash cow attraction without choking the roads with Smogwagons, etc.
Perhaps that’s where the optimism in “Polar Bear” comes from. They see the problem, but there’s still money to be made from expressing concern while in the deepest, dollars-driven denial.
DisneyNature allows a global corporation to finance great nature filmmakers’ projects that pay lip service to the problem without having to admit “We, as a company, don’t mean it.”
Rating: PG, bears hunting seals
Cast: Narrated by Catherine Keener.
Credits: Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson, scripted by David Fowler. A DisneyNature release on Disney+.
Running time: 1:25