In 2005, March of the Penguins was a wake-up call that more nature documentaries should be made for kids: animals, kids, nature – they’re a natural fit. Nine years later, kids now know at least one nature doc will be released around Earth Day and that the animal footage will be astounding. However, these films carry their own traps: traumatizing the young audience with “the circle of life” or, even worse, boring them. I’m glad to report that with Disneynature’s Bears, a winning formula has finally been achieved.
Here are five lessons we learned:
Narration is crucial. No offense, Pierce Brosnan, but your soothing voice put me to sleep in Oceans. John C. Reilly juxtaposes exposition with just the right amount of silliness. Plus, his goofy delivery is how we envision a bear might speak.
Use humor. Kids don’t want to feel like they’re learning, they just want to laugh. In Bears, laugh you will. The audience doesn’t just observe the antics of Sky and her cubs: Reilly’s narration includes what the bears may be thinking, like an episode of AFV, and it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
Once you’ve made us love a character, don’t kill it. The body count in Earth was staggering. Slowly, slowly through the years, documentarians are learning that kids don’t want their “main characters” killed off – nor do they want to watch their characters in constant peril. In African Cats, Sita and her cubs faced crocs, hyenas, cheetahs – and only half of the family is still alive by movie’s end. Even in the gentler Chimpanzee, baby Oscar’s mothers goes “missing.” Filmmakers finally learn in Bears: only the salmon die.
Use lots and lots of baby animals. Maybe it’s unoriginal or even pandering to show the audience lots of baby animals, but it works. If the cuteness of baby animals can entertain us for hours on an iPad, it can certainly work for 90 minutes on a big screen.
Thrilling adventure. In a fictional film, even the youngest kids have some sense that when a character dies, the actor doesn’t really die. In the documentary format, if a “character” dies, it REALLY DIES. So, the audience knows that Sky’s long journey from cave to salmon stream is truly life or death and makes the bears' victories all the more rewarding.
Basically, Disneynature has finally figured out how to do with animal documentaries what it does so well with Disney's animated films: deliver a witty, fun, emotionally compelling, relatable, high-stakes adventure that will engage children without traumatizing them.
Besides Disneynature’s Bears, here are three other great choices to see with the family this weekend:
Heaven Is for Real. Based on the book of a real-life account, a very young boy who suffers a near-death experience describes heaven with details he couldn’t possibly know.
Rio 2. Blu and Jewel go on vacation with their three children and discover they aren’t the only blue macaws in existence after all. Visually stunning and lots of fun music make this movie good for all ages.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Cap, Black Widow and Falcon are some of the best role models parents could hope for, but this superhero movie is a violent, political thriller best for older teens.
But what do KIDS think of these movies? Go to KidsPickFlicks.com, where all kids are movie critics.