REVIEW: ‘Polar Bear’ is a Memorable Documentary

Disneynature’s Polar Bear is a memorable documentary that looks at one of the most charismatic species on the planet.

Disneynature’s newest wildlife documentary, Polar Bear, is an astounding achievement. It is directed by Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson, the team behind Disneynature’s Penguins, and narrated by two-time Academy Award nominee Catherine Keener. While it accomplishes what it set out to be—a beautiful and engaging family-friendly film—it also manages to go a bit deeper due to the inescapable reality of climate change on the film’s subjects.

Polar Bear is almost as true to its title as any film could get. The documentary follows one specific female bear for over 15 years in the Arctic. While it is somewhat framed from the perspective of this bear when she is a mother herself later in the film, most of the runtime seems to explore her coming of age. Indeed, perhaps the most memorable moments of Polar Bear come from her youth when she is living and learning from her mother alongside her twin brother. The true artistry of the story comes from the meticulous process of selecting a bear and committing to her for well over a decade. While she ultimately has a cub of her own, her journey is permanently set against the backdrop of her adventures with her own mother and the documentary emphasizes how significant ice bear heritage is to the continued survival of the species, both in the short- and long-term. 

Polar Bear is undoubtedly a family-friendly movie that does not “talk down” to a younger audience. The pure joy of watching furry, cuddly-looking cubs play and learn new behaviors is a basic treat in and of itself. The majesty and power of watching adult bears in their native environment is captured brilliantly by the filmmakers. The visuals and cinematography are absolutely stunning. From the close-ups to the aerial shots, Polar Bear does not leave anything wanting in that space. Much of what makes the documentary special is that it captures polar bear behavior never before seen on camera. And while that might not be obvious while watching it, some moments are undeniably special, and the visuals, score, narration, and more work together in unison to paint those moments in an unforgettable light. 

While the documentary is clearly an engaging and fun family-friendly movie, as a wildlife documentary Polar Bear does inevitably include somber moments. One of the most powerful aspects of the film ae the occasional flash-forwards to our bear with her cub, navigating an Arctic environment drastically changed by climate change since her youth. Despite the unavoidable presence of climate change, Polar Bear does not spend much time detailing or unpacking it. The documentary is the story of our bear—but the story of our bear cannot be told without showing the environment she is raising a cub into. The film ends on a noticeably much more optimistic and resilient note than it feels in the most recent footage. While the bear (through narration) struggles through harsh new terrain, she proclaims that her daughter will learn to be a great ice bear and will survive.

Polar Bear is a strong installment in the Disneynature collection. The documentary’s ability to capture scenes in such an extreme environment over such an extreme period of time undoubtedly paid off in the final product. The result is a memorable look at the lives, behaviors, and environments of one of the most charismatic species on the planet. 

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