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Hollywood's legendary casting nightmares can't hold a candle to those in Alaska, where finding just the right screen stars is a matter of life and death.

Just ask the crew behind the Disneynature filmBears, opening Friday in advance of Tuesday's Earth Day. Directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill worked on the project, shot in southern Alaska's Katmai National Park and Preserve, for two years. But a tough winter and poor salmon population during the first year meant that few brown bear cubs survived.

"Fortunately, there was a baby boom the next year, and we have lived happily ever after," Scholey says. "Our stars were born."

The documentary explores a year in the life of first-time mother Sky and her two cubs as they navigate the hazards of the wilderness. Offspring Amber and Scout show true bear personality and photogenic looks. "They have really cute faces. You can see why teddy bears got so popular," says film narrator John C. Reilly.

And fortunately, Sky "was calm and happy with the film crew being relatively close,'' Scholey adds.

Bears follows the family from the hibernation den through the treacherous journey to the summer salmon feeding ground. Wild behavior is not candy-coated: The cubs successfully fight off a hungry wolf until their mother arrives, and male brown bears are a constant threat. There are moments, however, of sheer comedy, such as when a fierce alpha male has his fill of salmon.

"It will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has had a big Thanksgiving with their family," Reilly says. "A lot of tummy patting and yawning and napping."

The cubs also had the good fortune of surviving the entire year leading to their big screen debut.

"Right now, they are tucked up, hibernating in the den with their mother," Scholey says. "And they are about to come out to enjoy spring."

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