Baby, it’s a wild world
Just in time for Earth Day 2009 comes Earth, touted as the first release in the new “Disneynature” series; there’s even a promo trailer directly linking Disneynature to Walt Disney’s True Life Adventures, the series of documentary shorts and features that revolutionized the field of nature photography and won Disney eight Academy Awards between 1948 and 1958. Disney, the promo tells us, is once again the leader in giving audiences an eye-opening look into the wonderful world of nature.
Well, not exactly: Earth is good, but it isn’t really a Disney picture, and it’s not really new.
Actually, Earth, written and directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield (with Leslie Megahey credited as co-writer), is the feature-length version of their Emmy-winning BBC documentary series Planet Earth. This version hit the festival circuit in the summer of 2007 and was released in much of the world, from France to New Zealand, between then and October 2008.
For its U.S. release, the original narration by Patrick Stewart has been replaced with a new one spoken by James Earl Jones (and including none-too-subtle references to Disney movies such as Toy Story and The Lion King), and adorned with the new Disneynature logo that transforms the familiar castle into silhouetted mountain peaks.
So where Walt Disney Productions once financed and guided the work of freelance filmmakers into a groundbreaking series of nature documentaries, Disney now takes the finished work of others and tacks the Disney name on it for domestic consumption. That’s how Disney works these days, fearlessly following where others lead and co-opting the work of the real innovators.
And much of Earth is, if not exactly innovative, at least visually breathtaking on a how-in-the-world-did-they-get-that-shot level. The movie is a quick tour of the world and its animals, beginning with spring in the Arctic, as a mother polar bear and her two cubs emerge from hibernation and hunt for food in their white wilderness, then moving south through the temperate and tropic zones to Antarctica (spending relatively little time there, since March of the Penguins has pretty much tapped the area out) before returning north next spring, where the same polar bear cubs emerge once more from their winter sleep, now grown to maturity and hungry once again.
During our tour we see elephants migrating across Africa, uneasily sharing what water they can find with hungry and predatory lions; demoiselle cranes making the arduous journey across the Himalayas from their nesting grounds in central Asia to winter in India; the hilarious mating dance of the six-plumed bird of paradise; and gorgeous time-lapse photography of the changes of the seasons across forests, deserts and savannahs.
Unlike the old True Life Adventures, which tended to deal with a single species or geographic area (Seal Island, Bear Country, Beaver Valley, The Living Desert), Earth goes for the entire planet, with a resulting (perhaps inevitable) diffusion of its focus. What happened with that herd of thirsty elephants? Were those birds of paradise ever able to hook up? Sorry, back on the bus, everyone, we’ve got a schedule to keep. It’s a format that probably worked better in Planet Earth’s original 11 hours; being yanked from continent to continent like this, paradoxically enough, makes the movie feel, if not too long, at least longer than its modest 96 minutes.
It’s been half a century since Walt Disney and his nature photographers had the genre all to themselves; nowadays, IMAX comes out with a new nature documentary every few months. Where the True Life Adventures were once our chief window into nature, Earth must compete with IMAX, the Discovery Channel and others to cover the same ground. And where we once had the chatty, avuncular narration of Winston Hibler set to the playful music of Paul J. Smith, we now get the more stentorian tones of James Earl Jones, with a grandiloquent, only occasionally lighthearted score by George Fenton.
Walt Disney’s True Life Adventures were genuinely innovative; where Disney once led, Disney now follows. But at least in Fothergill and Linfield they’ve got two good filmmakers out front with the cameras.