Director Alastair Fothergill has wanted to make a polar bear movie for Disneynature for years. His passion for wildlife and these majestic creatures resulted in over 20 years of expertise and filming for more than 20 years. He knew there was a story to tell, and it’s only deepened in the dozen years since he first pitched the film to Disneynature.
“I’ve always known that polar bears would deliver—they’re unbelievably beautiful creatures and simply dominant in their habitat,” he says. “And the landscape is amazing; it’s second to none. Plus, polar bear cubs just might be the cutest cubs on the planet, which is perfect for Disneynature.
“We would come to Burbank and pitch our ideas,” he says. “And every year, I’d pitch polar bears. They’re solitary animals—white bears in the middle of an Arctic setting—how do you make a 75-minute movie about polar bears? But I really believed in it.”
Years later, Fothergill’s dream finally came true with Disneynature’s Polar Bear, a new documentary on Disney+ that is reflective of the signature storytelling Disneynature’s films are known for with an entertaining and engaging blend of humor, education, and stunning visuals.
In honor of the film’s majestic and extraordinarily resilient stars, The Koalition spoke to Polar Bears’ Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson about a range of topics including raising awareness, polar bear behaviors, how climate change affects them, and more.
Disneynature’s Polar Bear tells the story of a new mother whose memories of her own youth prepare her to navigate motherhood in the increasingly challenging world that polar bears face today. The heart of the story is family—that bond between mothers and cubs. It’s a relationship that lasts between two and a half and three years—in that time the mother will teach her cubs everything they need to know to survive but how does that survival look when the world is rapidly changing around them? How does a species survive when a generation of knowledge no longer applies?
“Disneynature movies [represent] strong engaging characters and stories and we always knew that polar bears would provide that, so initially it was a polar bear story we wanted to tell but we always knew polar bears are at the cutting edge of climate change and it would have been impossible in fact dishonest to make a movie today about polar bears that didn’t refer to. That’s why we actually chose to tell the story through the eyes of a 14/15-year-old polar bear female looking back at her life because over that period where we made the film there’s been a significant change. The environmental message was always going to be there but ultimately, we hope it’s an entertaining and engaging film with environmental messages and under message rather than the front of the film,” said Fothergill.
“But when we first pitched the film, we weren’t expecting it to have an environmental component because we didn’t know at the time how much climate change would affect the Arctic,” Fothergill continues. “We always knew it was happening faster in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world, but we didn’t expect it to be quite as drastic as it is. Polar bears have been forced to adapt—we witnessed it and captured some of those behaviors—it’s extraordinary. But they have a tough road ahead.”
Wilson and Fothergill worked on Frozen Planet, a 2008 series for BBC’s Natural History Unit, that fueled both filmmakers’ passion for the Arctic. “Our knowledge—the world’s knowledge—of the natural world is ever-expanding,” says Wilson. The polar bear is an iconic animal whose narrative is incredibly powerful in the documentary. It’s getting more and more powerful with every year, not only given how much its habitat is changing but its food supply which is evident as polar bears’ diet has changed because of climate change.
“I think the extraordinary thing about bears is they’re good problem solvers. They have an environment that changes naturally throughout the year and so they always have to be aware of what food is out there for them. Our film shows this and hunting Harbor Seals which has never been seen before but also going as far as eating seaweed when you don’t get a Harbor Seal is also an interesting side of it. [Then they’re] going after Walruses and going after Ringed Seal and then we’re witnessing more and more in the arctic is polar bears having to take risks for their food.; polar bears [are] climbing the bird cliff as a result of that. There’s a lot of science now pointing towards bears climbing cliffs more and taking that risk to eat birds and very small bird eggs and that’s not really worth their while [because] they don’t get much out of it. It goes to show how hungry they are because of the climate change that’s happening around them,” said Wilson.
“Not so long ago, polar bears would get 90 percent of their food on the frozen sea ice between early March and late May. But the freeze is coming later, and the ice is melting earlier. The west coast of Svalbard has lost its ice altogether. The bears have increasingly had to resort to alternative food types—fortunately, they’re very clever animals.”
Filming for Disneynature’s Polar Bear began in 2019 in Svalbard, Norway—650 miles from the North Pole. The archipelago—located between mainland Norway and the North Pole—features glaciers, large expanses of frozen tundra, mountains, fjords, coastlines— and more polar bears than people. During winter and most of the spring, the seas surrounding Svalbard freeze over, providing the ideal hunting ground for polar bears.
Working in the Arctic as a filmmaker is far from a 9-to-5 gig. The region goes dark from early October through February—a season known as northern lights winter. The other two seasons include sunny winter and polar summer, and the sun doesn’t set between April and August, which allows filmmakers to work around the clock—both a blessing and a curse. Capturing footage of polar bears roaming the frozen tundra was important for the story—particularly footage of mothers and cubs. Says Wilson. “We had to figure out how to be in the bears’ presence for the longest period of time possible in order to really capture the kind of character moments and the behaviors that we knew could support a film. To do that—especially in those winter months, you need to figure out how to survive out there.”
Adds director Wilson, who has been researching and filming the natural world for two decades, “It’s impossible not to relate to and feel for the mother in our story as she reflects on the past and faces uncertainty about the future in a world that is changing fast.”
“We were going to tell the story of a female bear because obviously female bears have the cubs and actually polar bears are loners most of the polar bears the males certainly spend their whole life on their own and that would be a far less engaging story than a mother struggling to bring up her cubs. We also knew the 15-year period would allow us to tell a bigger story than just concentrating on the sort of four or five years it takes a mother to bring up one set of cubs.
“We know what happens to the bears once they leave her mother is that they’re then an independent for a very long period of time; up to three years. On any given day, you follow your bear as long as you can [and we] and in that environment where they’re hopping around their sea ice flows have a specialized uh ice-breaking eye strengthened ship that allows us to move through that ice with them but even still the bears are very good at disappearing into that environment. We followed her for as long as we possibly could, but the fact remains, she’s not going to see anybody for the next two or three years because bears are solitary and that’s an extraordinary part of the bear’s story.”
Fothergill and Wilson’s hard work will as inspired others. Disneynature and the Disney Conservation Fund will continue their longstanding commitment to caring for wildlife and their habitats by supporting Polar Bears International in their efforts to help protect polar bear mothers, cubs, and their Arctic home.
To learn more about Polar Bear check out our full interview in the video above.