Earth

A ballet of water, fish and seals.

A ballet of water, fish and seals.

(Disneynature) Narrated by James Earl Jones. Directed by Alistair Fothergill and Mark Linfield.

Our planet never ceases to amaze. With all the things we do to it, all the ways we abuse our trust of this fragile world, it still shelters and nurtures us. As much of it as we have explored and seen, it still manages to take our breath away, often unexpectedly. Earth is mostly footage from the Discovery Channel/BBC documentary mini-series Planet Earth with new narration from the great James Earl Jones. While some of the footage here is devoted to the world’s geography and plant life, the focus here is on the animals of our world.

Here we see polar bear cubs being helped by their mother on their first steps outside of their den, and then guided to the shore so that they may hunt – after initially heading the wrong way. Exhausted elephants trek across bone-dry desert, desperate for water and beset by predators preying on the weak. Birds of paradise strut their extraordinary plumage in an effort to attract a mate. Storks fly across the Himalayas, fighting treacherous air currents and exhaustion trying to migrate to warmer climates. Ducklings leap from trees attempting to fly for the first time – and plummet to the leaf-carpeted floor, not so much flying as Jones intones, as falling – with style.

There are shots of breathtaking beauty. The camera pulls back from a flock of birds to reveal that there are not dozens but thousands of birds in the flock. Schools of fish (sardines I think) are a living hurricane as they dance with seals and dolphins in a playful ballet (see photo above). An arboreal forest, covered with snow, thaws into spring blooms. Time lapse photography takes a forest from the green leaves of summer to the brilliant colors of autumn. There is also amazing poignancy. A polar bear, having to range farther and farther afield in a fruitless effort to find food, is trapped by the melting ice floes and must swim to shore. Completely worn out and starving, he is forced to attack a herd of walruses, whose tusks are lethal weapons. Failing to kill any of them, he slumps to the ground, dying while the indifferent walruses go on about their lives around him. It is the brutal side of nature encapsulated.

As is the wont with Disney’s nature movies, the animals are anthropomorphized to an almost silly degree. The trapped polar bear, for example, is named as the father of the cubs from the first scenes of the film, but it seems to me unlikely that the filmmakers could have possibly known whether that was true or not. It seems to be an unnecessary dumbing down for the sake of appealing to children. My experience is that children tend to love animals whether you give them human personalities or not. Disney perhaps should have checked with their Animal Kingdom staff on this point. Still, it’s a small complaint and easily overlooked.

The larger question is whether it is worth going to a theater to see footage that is available not only on cable (the Planet Earth series is re-run occasionally) and widely on DVD (on high-definition yet). The answer is a resounding yes. Some of the more epic footage is far more stunning on a big screen, and Jones’ narration is to my mind much more memorable than Sigourney Weaver’s narration – which is just fine, mind you – on the Discovery Channel edition (BBC viewers got to hear Patrick Stewart do the narration, although I haven’t heard his work on it to compare).

Walt Disney inaugurated his True Life Adventure series back in 1948, and the series of nature documentaries would continue for twelve years, garnering three Oscars for best feature documentary, as well as for the since-discontinued category of two-reel short features. Many of these were repeated on his Wide World of Color television program, and were staples in classrooms across the country in my formative years. This is the first of a series of nature documentaries that Disney intends to release on Earth Day in succeeding years (the next is Oceans in 2010) and given the challenges facing our climate, our environment, our world, the time is right for films to remind us just how precious this world is – and how important the life that resides upon it is as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Spectacular footage that constantly takes the breath away. This is as informative a documentary as I have seen recently, and has much more going for it than just the “wow” factor.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Much of the footage previously available on cable and home video. The animals are often anthropomorphized and “dumbed down” for children.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Filming of the documentary (including additional footage filmed exclusively for the feature) took place over 4,000 days, making it the most extensive documentary project ever undertaken.

FAMILY VALUES: Informative, educational, spectacular and full of cute furry critters, what kid isn’t going to love this?

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains some fascinating footage detailing how the larger Planet Earth mini-series was whittled down to this feature film.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

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