Wondrous, Poignant 'Earth'

Documentary Offers Kid-friendly Narrative Of Three Animal Families *** 1/2 (3 1/2 Stars)

April 24, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Polar bear cubs seeing daylight for the first time. Mother elephants plodding through the desert. Humpback whales leaping out of the ocean. Exhausted geese, struggling to fly over the top of Mount Everest.

With such a photogenic and charismatic cast, how could Earth miss? This first release from the new Disneynature line is both a throwback to and an update of the wildlife films Disney began producing in the 1950s, films that turned an entire generation into nature lovers. This film, especially when experienced with all the clarity and magnificence new projection technology can muster, should do much the same.

Culled from the Discovery Channel's 11-part Planet Earth series (and narrated by James Earl Jones, not Sigourney Weaver), Earth features photography that goes beyond spectacular and puts it on the big screen, where it belongs. Sweeping aerial views of the Arctic conifer forests, tracking shots of a lone polar bear stumbling through the ice, whimsical close-ups of a hungry ape stuffing its cheeks with fruit - at times, if your breath isn't taken away, then you must not have been breathing in the first place.

To give the movie a narrative thread (and to stick with the family-centric formula Disney has exploited for years), the filmmakers concentrate on three animal families. In the first, a mom polar bear and her two cubs go exploring, while their desperately hungry dad looks for food amid the ever-shrinking Arctic ice pack. In the second, a humpback whale and its calf swim their 4,000-mile migration route, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. In the third, a thirsty mother and baby elephant trek through the unforgiving African desert in search of a watering hole.

Certainly, there's an underlying poignancy to Earth, given not only the perilous plight of its animal stars, but also the state of the Earth itself.

But to the movie's credit, its eco-friendly message is simply part of the narrative, not its entirety. The term "global warming" is never uttered, although it is stated as fact that the Earth is getting warmer. That's one reason the polar bears' hunting range is shrinking - and why papa bear is having so much trouble finding food.

Purists may grumble at Disney's constant need to anthropomorphize the animal kingdom, as well as the decision not to follow some of the narrative threads to their inevitably grizzly end.

Whereas the TV series rarely flinched when it came to showing the animal world as it is, Earth always pulls back at the last second. It shows a cheetah pulling down a gazelle, but not the feast that follows.

Narrator Jones intones about what happens when the only food an emaciated polar bear can find is an adult walrus with a pair of lethal tusks for protection, but doesn't show what happens when the bear loses the ensuing fight.

But adults know how these story lines play out, and really young kids may not yet be ready for such disappointments. Earth, while not overly simplistic, is decidedly kid-friendly, which is what makes it the closest thing to a universal crowd-pleaser playing movie theaters today, affording all ages the chance to gape at the wonders this planet offers.

Earth

(Disneynature) A documentary by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield. Rated G. Time 90 minutes.

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