Thursday, September 17, 2009

Movie Review - DisneyNature's "Earth"

I should preface this review by saying that I had read some reviews myself back when the film was first released to theaters. I remember some of those reviewers saying that “Earth” was unsuitable for children because of the graphic nature of some of the scenes including one involving the death of one of the film’s subject animals. Now first of all, let me say that I think those reviewers were off their rockers. Second of all, having this information caused me to watch every scene with a sense of impending doom as I anticipated this graphic death.

Anyway, “Earth” is the first in what will hopefully be a long line of long subject nature films produced by the Walt Disney Company for mass consumption. Scoff at it if you like but Disney does this better than anyone: takes a concept and packages it for mass consumption. That’s basically what makes Walt Disney World so unique. It’s the sights and sounds of the world and its history boiled down to the essence. It’s the thing that makes many people despise Disney but to me it’s what makes the park so great. An easy to enjoy and love place where the public can enjoy a little bit of everything, hopefully taking back an understanding of things unknown before and a new found appreciation that can blossom into an all out fascination. A trip to Epcot’s China leads to a trip to the real China, a child’s ride on Kilimanjaro Safari leads to a career in conservation and zoology.

I sense myself getting off on a tangent here but this is the thing that “Earth” does so well. It’s not a defining film on any one subject matter but rather a panorama of the spectacle of the planet. A perfect introduction to documentaries and nature films for those who had no predisposition to them before.

The film opens up in the arctic with a family of polar bears. After a long winter, mom and the cubs emerge from the den as dad sets off on a journey to find food. We meet up with other arctic creatures like birds and caribou. Suddenly, narrator James Earl Jones informs us that “wolves are on the prowl and they’re hungry.” Remember that sense of impending doom I mentioned earlier? Yep…a wolf chases down a baby reindeer and we have our first fatality. The death and subsequent eating, by the way, is not actually shown. Instead we learn that the wolf will only be able to win the chase of the deer makes a mistake. Deer makes mistake, wolf catches him, fade to black.

We move on to the Kalihari Desert where a herd of elephants is journeying to find savanna. A mother and calf get separated from the herd in a dust storm and more doom seems imminent. Instead we move on to a herd of gazelle who are being hunted by a cheetah. Ought oh. There’s a chase and when it’s all said and done it’s Cheetah – 1, Gazelle – 0. This death, by the way, is actually shown, neck biting and all, in slow motion and with dramatic music. There’s no blood and nobody actually mentions anyone dying, only that the “circle of life” goes on.

Meanwhile the elephants made it back to the herd and to a watering hole where they fill up with some lions. That seems like an odd pairing and indeed it is. When night falls the lions try to pick off a calf but the herd protects them. This forces the pack of lions to use plan B. (No not that Plan B! Get your head out of the gutter!) They chase down an adult elephant and all thirty or so lions pounce on it! This was incredibly cool, by the way, and all the goriness happens off screen. Though this is like the fourth death in this movie so my spoiler was a little off by three or so potentially child scaring deaths.

We move into the ocean where a mother blue whale and her calf begin the long journey from the tropics to the Antarctic. It always amazes me how these animals travel halfway across the world TWICE every single year and this film can’t even do it justice. It blows my mind. We take a break from the epic whale journey to see dolphins and swordfish hunt for fish in the water and then cut to a great white shark jumping up out of the water to devour a seal! Holy cow that was amazing! And by far our most graphic death scene of the movie. You have to see it though. Great white sharks are frightening! Somebody should make a movie about that.

Anyway, we end up back in the Serengeti as the elephant herd has made it to the flooded wetlands. This also has my favorite scene of the movie, as they show different animals like zebras and giraffes walking through the water and then cut to a group of confused and annoyed baboons who gingerly wade through with their hands up in the air looking exactly like me every time I’m in a swimming pool (okay, well me minus the pina colada.)

Then its back into the ocean where the whales have made it to the end of their journey and a krill buffet. We stop to check in with some penguins and then some migratory birds that have to make the insane journey from Mongolia OVER the Himalayas to India every year.

We finally return to the arctic to check in with poor papa polar bear. (**Global Warming Admonishing Alert**) The receding sea ice has made it next to impossible for him to hunt for seals. He almost drowns at sea before finally finding some land and a walrus herd. He tries to pick off a calf but just like the lions earlier he is unsuccessful. He’s forced to try to take down an adult in the water but its too big and he’s too weak. Unlike the lions he doesn’t have twenty nine other polar bears to help out and without blatantly saying it, the sunset on screen signals the sunset of the life of our polar bear.

Then the scene switches to his cubs. The two, in spite of the statistic given in the beginning of the film, both survived the year and go on to lead the next generation. It’s a harsh world, James Earl Jones notes, “but sometimes it’s paradise.” Things end with a montage of the elephants frolicking in the wetlands.

In closing, like I said at the onset, this is a great introductory movie for anyone. Yes there are some deaths but, hey, that’s life. It’s certainly nothing that you need to fear exposing your children to. (And it’s certainly no worse than the absolutely heartbreaking frozen egg scene in “March of the Penguins.”) I’d keep the young ones away if you think they’re not ready for it but there’s no reason kids over the age of, say, eight should be unable to watch it. It’s a great film to hopefully get them interested in seeing other educational nature films. There’s plenty there for the adults too. It’s tone is definitely meant to be inclusive for all members of the family but it’s not going to make you feel like you're being talked down to.

Lastly, the cinematography itself is breathtaking. Absurdly beautiful. My poor little television didn’t come close to doing it justice. This film was made for IMAX and I could only imagine how breathtaking scenes like Victoria Falls and the Aurora Australis would have been on an IMAX screen.

This was a great start for the DisneyNature family and will be a worthwhile ninty minutes for yours.

Overall Rating: *** ¾ (Increasing based on the size and high definition capability of your television. ***** if you can see it in Imax.)

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