Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Disney's 'Earth': Life's Rough and Then You Revel In It

As nature documentaries go, "Earth" has a lot to live up to. The first film released under the Disneynature label, it automatically conjures up comparisons to Disney's "True-Life Adventures" series that set the standard for nature films over 60 years ago. I'm pleased to say "Earth," in theaters nationwide today, carries the mantle of its predecessor quite proudly.

Traveling from Pole to Pole, "Earth" encapsulates a year in the life of our mother planet, showcasing the exquisite beauty of Arctic ice flows, tropical rain forests and vast oceans without shying away from the harsh realities of nature. Thus we see a family of polar bears frolicking in fresh snow even as they are struggling to find food at the edge of an ever-receding ice shelf. We watch in bemusement as young mandarin ducklings "fall with style" in their first flights from their elevated nest. We also witness the steely determination of a cheetah hunting its prey on the African plains.

Last year, when Disney introduced Disneynature for the first time, it smacked of a brand about to caught up in its own self-importance. In the wake of growing public fears about climate change, Disney announced "Earth" would be released on Earth Day 2009 and, oh look, we've got Mr. Circle of Life himself, James Earl Jones, to narrate. "Earth" was already screaming "I'm an important film. You better pay attention." Marketing rhetoric aside, it's a relief to see jaded suspicions melt away as "Earth" draws you into its lyrical beauty. Jones's narration is grandfatherly and understated, not stentorian, with plenty of touches of humor and whimsy. While it makes plenty of references to global warming and the encroachment of man on the animal kingdom, it never belabors the point, allowing you to celebrate the grandeur of earth without fearing for its existence.

"Earth" is a film that avoids nattering on about theories of apocalyptic futures, and instead shows you, in grandiose splendor, what's worth preserving right now.

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