April 22, 2022 marks the 52nd Earth Day, an event that began in America in 1970 and is now celebrated in over 190 countries. Disneynature is celebrating by releasing a new documentary that gives voice to a lovable and vulnerable animal: the polar bear. Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson, who collaborated on Disneynature’s Penguins (2019), Polar Bear takes us on a grand and enlightening journey with a young female polar bear as she learns how to hunt, play, survive, and eventually, take care of a cub of her own (of course, the filmmakers did not actually follow one particular bear from her cub years to adulthood, but the narration is written to make it seem that way). While the overall structure of Polar Bear isn’t that different from the average nature documentary, it has a heartwarming and personal tone that you might not expect from this kind of movie.
Polar Bear is packed with stunning footage that captures the beauty of the Arctic, the incredible intelligence of the polar bear, and the tragedy of climate change. But what really makes this documentary special is the first-person narration written by David Fowler and read by Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich, Get Out). The narration is written from the perspective of a female polar bear as she thinks back on her early days of following her mom around, wrestling with her brother, learning to hunt, and trying to survive in an ever-changing climate. By using first-person narration, Polar Bear combines the breathtaking realism of animal documentaries with the heartwarming charm of fictional, live-action animal movies like Homeward Bound. In traditional animal documentaries, the animals are “objects,” meaning that they’re being watched, observed, and talked about, but they aren’t telling their own story. Meanwhile, the narrator in a traditional nature documentary isn’t supposed to represent any of the animals. They’re simply a disembodied voice that adds meaning to the documentary without getting directly involved in the action. But in Polar Bear, an animal gets to “speak for itself” via Keener’s first-person narration, thereby becoming the “subject” of the documentary.
You could argue that the polar bears are still being objectified because a story has been created for them. But what matters with this kind of documentary is the direct emotional effect that it will have on a mass audience. In that sense, it doesn’t matter that the narration was written by humans who had no way of knowing what the polar bears were actually thinking. What matters is that it feels like a polar bear is speaking for itself, which has a much different effect on the audience than third-person omniscient narration. Even though the documentary contains footage of many different polar bears, Keener’s narration creates the illusion of a unique, one-of-a-kind polar bear who keeps our attention, earns our trust, and deserves our respect. In terms of emotional effect, this documentary isn’t about a herd of wild animals — it’s about one individual animal who has something to say about her experiences.
The score by Harry Gregson-Williams (The Last Duel, The Martian) also plays a key role in turning the documentary footage into a narrative. While the cinematography of Polar Bear is beautiful, nature shots can only keep our attention for so long. The score is like a secondary narrator that keeps us interested in the story. When Keener isn’t speaking, the score tells us whether we should be feeling tense, excited, hopeful, or amused. The sweeping, symphonic score is appropriate for a beautiful nature documentary, supplementing the grandness of the movie and echoing the beauty of the Arctic.
Filmmakers don’t have to try very hard to get audiences to care about cute animals, but Polar Bear’s unique narration adds an emotional dimension that you don’t normally get from a documentary. It’s a lot harder to ignore climate change when we hear about it “directly” from an animal whose home is being slowly destroyed. And yet, the message of Polar Bear isn’t overbearing. There are enough happy and lighthearted moments to balance out the tone of the film and make it feel genuine. While you have to wonder how accurately the narration reflects the footage being shown, you can’t help but appreciate the challenges that the filmmakers overcame to capture that footage and the creativity required to turn it into a cohesive story.
For more information about Polar Bear and Disneynature, check out the Disneynature website.
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."