April 22, 2009

Earth

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Earth

DOCUMENTARY:

United Kingdom/Germany/United States, 2007

U.S. Release Date:

2009-04-22

Running Length:

1:30

MPAA Classification:

G

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

James Earl Jones (Narrator)

Director:

Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield

Screenplay:

Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield, Leslie Megahey

Cinematography:

Richard Brooks Burton, Mike Holding, Andrew Shillabeer

Music:

George Fenton

U.S. Distributor:

Disneynature

Subtitles:

none


It requires only four words to describe Earth: glorious photography, annoying narration. Essentially, Earth is a blown up (for the big screen), dumbed-down (for a young audience) version of the spectacular TV mini-series, Planet Earth. There's no question that, given the option, Planet Earth is the way to go. This movie will do in a pinch, however, and it is impressive - provided you find a way to block out the voiceovers. The stentorian tones of James Earl Jones (who provides the narration for the North American release; Patrick Stewart does the honors for the U.K. version) lend a degree of gravitas to the verbiage that the words don't deserve. Disney seems determined to transform an epic of nature into a live-action cartoon.

In order to limit the massive scale of Planet Earth to something manageable within a 90-minute time frame, the producers have elected to focus on three "family" stories. The upshot of this dubious decision is that the narrative repeats the March of the Penguins fiction of attributing human emotions and behavior patterns to animals - something that is unfortunate in a nature documentary. Leave that to the Disney cartoons. In addition, any potentially upsetting scenes of animal-on-animal violence have been carefully trimmed (the stalking, chasing, and initial pouncing are shown, but nothing more), as if the recognition that carnivores dine on other animals might be too distressing for children to understand. Proper respect for wild animals requires that the dangers of predators be illustrated; they are not cuddly stuffed toys. (Consider the tale of Grizzly Man's Timothy Treadwell for a cautionary example of where unrealistic expectations regarding bears can lead.) Wild Kingdom never shied from showing the cruel alongside the beautiful and that was a television show that aired in a family-friendly time slot.

The three storylines follow months in the lives of polar bears, elephants, and humpback whales. The bears are a family of four, with Mom and her two cubs emerging from hibernation while Dad's survival is challenged by prematurely melting arctic ice that limits his ability to find food. The elephant herd is migrating toward the floodwaters of the Okavango Delta while being stalked by lions and threatened by dehydration. And two humpbacks - mother and cub - make the long trek from the tropical birthing waters to the feeding grounds of Antarctica. During the course of the movie, there are "cameo" appearances by walruses, baboons, ducks, a lynx, penguins, Papua New Guinea birds of paradise, demoiselle cranes crossing the Himalayas, wolves, sharks, and others.

The film's structure is understandably haphazard, with the filmmakers attempting to incorporate as much eye-popping footage - some of which is unrelated to the main stories - as is possible. This is forgivable because the fiction that Earth has a narrative is easily the film's weakest aspect. In fact, the movie works best when James Earl Jones is silent and we are allowed to marvel at the vivid, almost three-dimensional sights while George Fenton's score provides an effective musical counterpoint.

Despite the negatives related to the narration, Earth is simply too spectacular to pass up because of poor choices made by the film's shapers. For those who can put aside James Earl Jones' voice, it's easy to get lost in the majesty of the imagery, and some of the most amazing selections from Planet Earth have been chosen. The time-lapse photography and aerial shots provide images that rival or exceed the most breathtaking special effects sequences in big-budget Hollywood pictures. Seeing this material on a big screen injects an element of grandeur absent from the home viewing experience. Earth is not a replacement for the mini-series; it exists as a companion piece - a way to repackage a product that deserves to be appreciated by as wide an audience as possible. This is an appetizer; those who like what they see can seek out the entire meal, which (especially in high-def) offers a more thorough and amazing experience than what is on offer here.

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