Directed by Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield. Narrated by James Earl Jones. (2009, G, 90 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., April 24, 2009
This first release from Disney’s self-explanatory new arm, Disneynature, is at the very least peripherally concerned with the planet and its dwindling prospects, but the real renewable resource here is the groundbreaking Planet Earth miniseries. Planet Earth was the first nature documentary to be shot in high definition; it first debuted on BBC television in 2006, where it was narrated by David Attenborough, then premiered stateside on the Discovery Channel a year later, this time with Sigourney Weaver narrating. The 11-episode series was then whittled down to a feature-length 96 minutes and began screening at festivals and in movie theatres around Europe; it now arrives, two years later and six minutes leaner, in America – a country that believes bigger is always better, even when the quality of your own flat-screen HD TV is superior to that of your average, badly lit multiplex screen (indeed, the astonishingly crisp picture quality of the TV series was rendered substantially more muddied at the sneak screening I attended of the film). James Earl Jones provides the narration to the U.S. release, with a nice mix of gravitas and playfulness (as when he plays wingman to a preening bird of paradise: “How could a girl resist?”). Earth tracks the migration patterns of a trio of mothers – elephant, polar bear, and humpback whale – and their newborns, as well as provides a snapshot of animal and plant life in various ecosystems around the world, oftentimes via time-lapse photography as gorgeous and surreal as anything you’d find in a Michel Gondry film. Although the film has several humorous set-pieces, including a marvelous, milking-it-for-all-it's-worth scene of Mandarin ducklings belly-flopping at their first attempts to fly, it doesn’t shy away from the fundamental cruelty of life in the wild. Several of the miniseries’ most harrowing instances of predator/prey are included in the film. The editors always cut away before any carnage, but some children will be just as disturbed by an excruciatingly long, if bloodless, chase between a cheetah and a young gazelle, still shaky on new legs (baby nihilists, on the other hand, will find more grist for the mill in the gazelle’s fateful spill, filmed elegiacally in slow motion). Earth is fairly matter of fact about the circle of life, which is why its pussyfooting around global warming strikes one as rather disingenuous. In the film’s only wrong note, the filmmakers refer to the global warming “trend” without citing the source of said trend; they later point to two cuddly looking polar bear cubs as “the hope of the future,” failing to acknowledge that climate change threatens that very future. Earth’s filmmakers had the opportunity to bend the ear of a sympathetic audience, one largely made up of children, the inheritors of this (some say irrevocably) damaged planet. One wonders why they passed up that opportunity for empty platitudes.