Disneynature’s Polar Bear Is A Breathtaking Visual Feast

Polar bears-ice bears, as they are sometimes called— need ice to survive. Disneynature’s newest entry in its impressive canon of anthropomorphized nature films, Polar bear clarify this point. As climate change continues and Earth’s ice cover is shrinking, the lives of polar bears are now more vulnerable than ever. Catherine Keener chronicles the challenges of a young polar bear as she matures in an increasingly difficult world, and as is often the case with Disneynature films, the result is a charming and courageous story of adaptation and resilience.

Directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson deliver some of the most stunning and jaw-dropping photographs of polar bears in their habitat ever brought to the screen. But let’s first recognize the degree of difficulty. The destination – the archipelago between Norway and the North Pole – presents the challenges of glaciers, frozen tundra, mountains and fjords. Filming is to take place during the harsh winter and early spring, when the seas freeze over and the polar bears begin their hunts. Aside from the cold, there is the winter darkness of the Northern Lights. The filmmakers may have a blueprint and even a basic script, but their subjects wander as they please.

Photo by Jeff Wilson. ©2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

To capture images of mothers and cubs wandering and hunting, filmmakers must set up their own eco-friendly, self-contained, sled-mounted camp. The long lens – a staple of nature documentary – allows them to film from a safe distance while recording intimate detail. Advanced gyro stabilizers allow for intricate and elegant shots. Lightweight and unobtrusive remote control drone cameras add a more omniscient perspective for aerial shots. And of course, once the weather changes, so do the ways to track bears, from tracked vehicles to boats when the ice thaws. Even then, there remains the challenge of photographing a white animal against a white background of snow, ice and sky!

Despite all these challenges, the filming – which took more than 200 days – resulted in some of the most remarkable footage of polar bears in their natural habitat imaginable. One sequence in particular must have given the crew goosebumps. Two young polar bears, a male and a female, meet on a large ice floe and come together for a joyful, balletic, even Chaplinesque play session. You might expect something like this in one of Disney’s animated features; Seeing real bears in such a playful state is nothing short of ecstatic.

Other sobering sequences include those that show the deteriorating state of the region’s ice mass, and with it, the polar bears’ chances of survival. The more the ice melts, the more perilous their journeys, the farther they must travel to hunt, risking drowning to find increasingly exhausted seals to eat. (There is nothing more distressing here than the walrus death sequence in the 2017 Netflix series Our planethowever, so rest assured: Polar bear is perfectly suitable for children with only the slightest indications of danger.)

An aerial image of deteriorating sea ice with three polar bears crossing a piece.
Photo by Florian Ledoux. ©2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

But what the Disneynature films do convincingly do is single out the fate of the species, and here, as in their earlier films, polar bear shines. The protagonist – a young “ice bear”, as she calls herself – is not given an anglicized name, as is so often the case, but Keener’s measured intonations and relatively stripped-down narration characterize the bear as thoughtful, brave and resilient. The story covers her life first as she hunts with her brother and mother, then finally leaves them to feed for herself, and finally as she triumphs over adversity to become herself. same mother.

In every Disneynature movie, from Elephant, Penguins, and dolphin reef for Kingdom of monkeys, bears, chimpanzees, African Cats, and now Polar bear– all co-directed by Fothergill – first-person narration anthropomorphizes the individual creature, allowing filmmakers to create memorable and resonant stories from otherwise random sequences of footage. As Keener’s narration guides viewers through the timeline and geography of his polar bear’s experience, the film’s score, composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, conveys the film’s varied emotions – elation, grief, pride – with unique and individually orchestrated leitmotifs for each scenario.

Supporting environmental causes with their filmmaking has been a tenet of Disney’s corporate philosophy since their first nature documentary, “Tru-Life Adventure” by seal island in 1948 and continues today with the Disneynature film series. The Disney Conservation Fund supports Polar Bears International in their efforts to help protect polar bear mothers, their cubs and their Arctic home. Far from being woke up the sworn enemy of right-wing governorson this front, Disney’s work is dedicated to the education and protection of the species.

Two polar bears walk along a melting glacier.
Photo by Jeff Wilson. ©2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

This support, and awareness films like Polar bear promote, comes at a time when the Earth is more than ever confronted with the potential consequences of climate change. Arctic sea ice, according to NASA’s Global Ice Viewer, is decline of about 13% each decade, and not only provides the polar bear population with habitable habitat; this too reflects sunlight, keeping the polar regions cool and moderating the global climate. In other words, as the Arctic goes, so does the world. Before his death, Physicist Stephen Hawking predicted humans are less than 200 years before our planet is uninhabitable. “Rising temperatures, shrinking polar ice caps, deforestation and decimation of animal species. We can be a bunch of ignorant and thoughtless people,” he said.

Polar bear is an incredibly beautiful, moving and educationally instructive film. Its protagonist is capable and resilient, a young woman who strikes out on her own and charts her own path to maturity. The larger questions raised by the film, about the survival of the species and the planet, are much more sobering. But even those can’t temper the candid charm and natural beauty of Disneynature’s latest triumph, Polar bear.


Polar bear premieres exclusively on the Disney+ streaming service on Earth Day, April 22, 2022, along with the making-of featurette Bear witness, narrated by Blair Underwood. For more information on polar bears and their changing habitat, visit polarbearsinternational.org.

Briana R. Cross