Go green with Disney’s new nature brand of documentaries
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Disney is never one to miss an opportunity so this Earth Day the studio has decided to launch its new Disneynature brand with "Earth" (opening April 22 throughout San Diego) the feature film version of the BBC TV series "Planet Earth." But for those of you who have already seen the TV show, this big screen version may prove disappointing since much of the footage originally aired on TV. The film tries to reformat the show to create a narrative that follows three animal families: polar bears, elephants, and whales. But the end result is a gorgeous coffee table book of a film with occasionally striking images but not much else. But Disney is making the opening of the film a green one: Disney executives agreed to plant a tree for every ticket bought during the film's first week. Apparently a half million trees have been committed so far.
"Earth" is Disneynature's first released film and the brand promises to start releasing a consistent flow of nature documentaries, much like Disney did years ago. (I remember a desert one with scorpions square dancing.) Although the film has its origins in England it boasts a distinct Disney flavor. Most of the harsh realities of life are kept off screen or are cut away from just before things get too brutal. There are occasional warnings about things like global warming but in the end "Earth" wants us to celebrate our beautiful planet and feel good about all the animal kingdom. So we get a hint of the harsh realities but end with a sense of paradise. "Earth" also delivers a Disney-style voiceover that cutely assigns human traits to all the animal behaviors regardless of what the animal behaviors are really about -- that's how we got those square dancing scorpions years ago.
The premise of following three animal families on their migration fades quickly. We get introduced to three animal families but there's no consistent sense of following them on a journey. The film feels more like a slapped together collection of impressive images with the filmmakers jumping around frantically to fit it all in and pretend like there's some narrative thread. It follows each animal family for a bit then wanders. It begins as if we will follow the seasons but then that changes too. There's really nothing that holds it together in any cohesive manner.
Another bad Disney trait is the use of music. In the case of "Earth" it is either vastly overblown or cloyingly cute. The best sound in the film is actually just the natural sounds of nature. The lions communicating on a dark night in Africa or the cracking of the polar ice are incredible and should not be drowned out by music but rather should be allowed to play clean so we can fully appreciate them. Adding less artifice would have helped the film.
But the film is often gorgeous to look at. The opening aerials are breathtaking as is the timelapse of the vibrant colors of fall. A 20-foot great white shark leaping out of the water and a school of a hundred sailfish are two of the more breathtaking images that can hold you rapt. There are also incredible night time images of lions on the hunt and the night sky filled with stars. But some of the best footage is in the end credits where we get to see how these shots were taken. At one point a cameraman strapped into a chair with a hot air balloon crashes into a tree and emerges with just "a flesh wound." How this footage was gathered is almost as interesting as the footage itself.
"Earth" (rated G) is less a film and more a gallery of moving images. Although it clocks in at about 90 minutes it feels much longer because it lacks real content.
Companion viewing: "The Secret Life of Plants," "Life on Earth," "Baraka"