Disney attempts to recapture the success of their 1950s series True-life Adventures (their collection of multi-Oscar winning nature documentaries) with the release of Earth. Earth is the first in a line of proposed projects under the Magic Kingdom’s Disneynature independent film label, created in 2008.
Striving to present events in chronological order over the course of a single calendar year, Earth has been billed as “following the migration paths of three animal families.” But that’s only part of the story, as the three families (polar bears, elephants, humpback whales) combined account for only about half the screen time. Interspersed throughout, Earth shows the mating rituals of New Guinean birds-of-paradise, the predator-prey relationship of wolves and caribou, the demanding search for water across the African continent and, in a humorous segment, a family of ducklings’ first “flight” out of the nest.
Being Disney, the film-makers use every trick of the trade. With footage largely culled from the BBC program Planet Earth, we are treated to expansive aerial scenes of migrating throngs of animals, slowed down footage of great white sharks breaching out of the water to capture their meals (a taste of nature so captivating it deserves—and gets—repeated showings), time-lapse segments of a forest floor greening and flowers opening up their enticements to their unsuspecting pollinators. Filming took place in 64 countries, including Nepal, where the producers were given access to spy planes enabling them to record the first ever footage of aerial shots over Mt. Everest. The documentary covers the planet from north to south—it begins on the Arctic ice and ends on the shores of Antarctica. In between we are shown forests, waterfalls, oceans, jungles, mountains, and deserts and there is scarcely a moment when the screen does not amaze—from the small close-ups of a duckling scrambling to its feet to the low-earth orbit shots of the sun rising over the orb of the planet. All told, at $40 million, this is the most expensive documentary ever created.
James Earl Jones provides narration, and besides fawning over the beauty and light-heartedly commenting on the funnier moments, he offers several truly fascinating bits of information. While we watch the uneasy alliance between elephants and lions at a small, lone watering hole, Jones notes that the elephants, with their superior size, dominate by day, but the lions, with their legendary feline vision, dominate the night. He also points out that half of the world’s oxygen is produced, not in the rain forests, but in the coniferous tree line where arctic meets temperate.
The narrator takes the opportunity to comment on environmental issues; not surprising as this film was released on Earth Day, and its subject matter lends it to such discussions. The warnings and respect the film’s creators dispense, however, are subtle: the main message here is the planet’s beauty, after all, and the dialogue is careful to not turn off those who do not consider themselves green. They are successful in this regard; it’s much easier to win people over to caring for the earth when showing them footage of the precious and spectacular planet, rather than forcing them to listen to a politician.
Earth is appropriate for children, though some might be scared by scenes of animals capturing their prey. In true Disney fashion, the scene cuts before anything brutal happens, but there are brief shots of carnivores tagging their prey with the paws and clamping down on the necks of their victims. If you do go, and your little ones haven’t gotten too antsy by the end, stay for the credits: a split-screen shows the audience how some of the unique and difficult scenes were captured on film (perhaps this is Disney attempting to preemptively answer the charges of staged shots that marred the True-life films). Both informative and humorous, these brief glimpses at the cinematographer’s adventures is among the most entertaining of the entire documentary.
Bottom line: B+