Disney has gotten back into the nature documentary game with their new Disneynature label. The first release, earth, brings some of the best visuals ever in a feature-length nature film. Unfortunately, it fails to bring anything resembling a compelling story to go along with all the pretty pictures. Disney used to produce a lot of True-Life Adventures back in the 1950’s. I know, you weren’t alive back then, but they used to show them on television when I was growing up in the 1970’s. They were pretty amazing at showing animals, plants, weather…you know, natural nature-type stuff. They also did a good job of using narration and music to tell an interesting story that made you forget you were watching something semi-educational. The successor to that series of shorts is the Disneynature label, and if their first effort, earth, is any indication, they have the amazing visuals part down but need to work on the interesting story.
Actually, it’s not really Disney’s fault that earth marries strong pictures with a weak story; they had almost nothing to do with the production. The movie is actually the work of the same people who put together the landmark Planet Earth television series on BBC and the Discovery Channel back in 2006 and 2007. earth recycles the footage shot for the 11-hour television show into a tidy 90 minutes and adds narration by James Earl Jones. While the Planet Earth presentation broke footage up into episodes like “Mountains,” “Jungles,” and “Forests,” earth unleashes a gang bang of beautiful but random images of our world and tries to anchor the whole thing on the stories of three “families.”
The main problem with the families angle is not that the whale, polar bear, and elephant groups aren’t interesting or beautiful at times; it’s just that the whole presentation is haphazard. Both the elephant and whale families are shown migrating, but the polar bears just hang around and explore or hunt. Even the whale migration isn’t that interesting, with the whales shown swimming, and then a little while later shown swimming again, and then finally, with great fanfare, shown swimming at their destination. Jones booms, “They made it!” but there was never any sense of danger that they wouldn’t.
That’s not to say there isn’t drama in the natural world. A battle between a herd of elephants and some hungry lions had me on the edge of my seat. But earth never pulls together as a coherent whole. Here’s a lion, there’s a caterpillar, there’s the seasons changing. Nothing flows that well, and you almost get the sense that co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield were simply told, “Add something awesome right here,” and did so regardless of how well that something awesome fit into the story. Really, do we need another cheetah-chasing-a-gazelle sequence?
The visuals are awesome, though, and if you don’t want to sit through 11 hours of amazing images, this might be enough for you. The clarity of Blu-ray almost makes up for the lack of the big screen as you watch waterfalls, caribou herds, birds, colorful leaves, or a shark eating a baby seal. It’s all breathtaking. If they’d put a better story to it, they might have had something really special.
Special or not, earth is a decent, if flawed, start for the Disneynature brand. Although the film was released in the theaters on Earth Day and contains some comments about climate change, it mostly avoids ecological finger pointing. It’s mostly pretty pictures showing our pretty awesome world. earth almost shouldn’t even be available unless you have Blu-ray capability. You’re already losing out on the big-screen experience, but to watch this in standard-def is really a step down. The Blu-ray does contain a regular DVD, as well (but for some reason, no electronic copy), but you should either wait until you have your own player or go over to a friend’s house to watch it. This is, after all, a movie that lives and dies by its visuals, and you want them as crystal clear, sharp, and colorful as you get on this high-def presentation.
While the visuals are great, the extras, like the story of earth itself, leaves something to be desired. There are only two extras, and they tend to overlap a bit. The first is what they call “Filmmaker Annotations.” This is a commentary, of sorts. As the movie plays, boxes pop up with either factoids about the animals or places show on screen, or video of someone talking.
The sum total of the boxes, which show up pretty frequently, is similar to an audio commentary, with one big problem. The things being stated by the talking heads often have nothing to do with what is happening on screen. The short sound bites are split between the creative team, directors and producers, and professional environmentalists. The environmentalists give the standard “We’ve got to stop doing this and do more of that” type of comments, but don’t really tie things into what we are watching. It would be more powerful to say, “If you do X, then Y happens” when you are watching it in front of your eyes. The filmmaker comments are typically more on point, but they weren’t watching the movie as they made the comments, and it’s often unclear why certain comments were selected to play during certain scenes.
The other extra is a 45-minute documentary called “Earth Diaries: The Making of earth the Movie.” Documentaries about documentaries are always somewhat funny to me. If the stuff they’re showing is so interesting, why not put it into the movie itself? In this case, they do show how they got some of the shots, and it’s actually interesting and a decent companion piece to the movie. However, some of the interviews for “Earth Diaries” are used in “Filmmaker Annotations,” so you often get the same information twice. Also, the filmmakers seem to think that doing things like putting a camera on a helicopter and flying over a polar bear is groundbreaking.
While the meager extras are a drawback, the length of the documentary and the fact they have a commentary equivalent, despite their weaknesses, is a positive. Again, this is for people who just can’t sit through something like Planet Earth but enjoyed March of the Penguins and want something similar.
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