Wait a minute. I know how this ends. The cheetah wins.
Directed by Alastair Fothergill & Mark Linfield
Cast: Narrated by James Earl Jones
Between 1955 and 1971, the Walt Disney Company released a string of short-subject documentary films dubbed True-Life Adventures. The True-Life Adventures series contains some of the film industry’s earliest wildlife documentaries. The 20 or so films Disney produced introduced many a child to the world of nature and probably inspired the future career of a young biologist or two. Of course, the series is also notorious for a 1958 film titled White Wilderness, which depicts hundreds of migrating lemmings plunging off cliffs into the ocean in a mass rodent suicide. In the years since, science and biology (and documentary filmmaking) have progressed a bit. It’s now generally understood that lemmings racing across the tundra and drowning themselves on a yearly basis is nothing more than a myth, and that Disney’s filmmakers faked the footage in White Wilderness by, well, shoveling a bunch of lemmings off a cliff in Alberta.
Now, as if in penance for that fuzzy snuff film of yesteryear, Disney is reviving its old True-Life Adventures banner with a documentary release timed to coincide with Earth Day 2009. Simply titled Earth, the film spends a year in the life of the planet watching a number of animal species as they raise their young, hunt for food and migrate across the face of the globe ahead of the changing seasons. We’ve got polar bears learning to navigate ice floes in the frozen north. We’ve got elephants dodging lions at watering holes in the Okavango Delta. We’ve got cranes winging their way over the Himalayas to greener pastures. We’ve got humpback whales trekking to the krill-filled Antarctic.
With its wealth of pretty pictures and near-total lack of contextual narrative, Earth isn’t anything you couldn’t see any random night of the week on Animal Planet or Discovery Channel. In point of fact, Earth is exactly the thing you could see if you’ve got a basic cable subscription. Turns out, the film is nothing more than a rejiggered, toned-down, severely truncated version of the award-winning 12-part BBC/Discovery docu-series “Planet Earth.” If you haven’t seen it, well, it’s got some impressive footage. If you have seen it, well, it’s on the big screen at least.
James Earl Jones replaces Sigourney Weaver (who replaced David Attenborough from the original British broadcast) as narrator. Jones’ familiar, sonorous voice is the obvious choice for a film like this and only appears self-conscious when he mentions “the circle of life.” (The Lion King, anyone?) Disney’s cut-and-paste presentation of “Planet Earth” retains as much cute baby animal footage as possible while excising most of the violent stuff. The honesty of a nature documentary can usually be judged by its use of “kill shots.” Does the cheetah take down the baby antelope or does the prey escape? Earth keeps things squarely in the G-rated realm. Though it shies away from scenes of wolves and other predators feasting on cute fuzzies, it does demonstrate to the kiddies in the audience that it’s a dog-eat-dog (or shark-eat-seal) world out there. The youngest of young ones may shed a tear, but kids today are isolated enough from the food chain. Best they learn this stuff early. Parents, while you’re at it, feel free to take your kids to a hot dog factory. Now there’s some real education for the tots.
“Planet Earth” has some of the best nature footage ever committed to film and video. And it is a treat to see highlights of it blown up to 35mm. I’d bet my life savings Earth looks awesome in IMAX. But as far as educational content goes, the film is slim. Unlike the drama of March of the Penguins, there’s no real story to root our attentions. While images of birds doing funky dances and baby bears losing their footing are plentiful, facts are few and far between. Jones does briefly mention that ice is receding at the North Pole, making it harder for polar bears to hunt. But he doesn’t even use the term “global warming.” Only the most hardcore of strip mine-owning Republicans would accuse it of pandering to right-wing eco-hippies.
While Earth amounts to little more than reruns, it does feature “best of” footage from a stunning nature series that’s worth hunting down and owning on DVD (or at least watching for free on Discovery Channel). Although it seems like a cheap way to produce a film, the Walt Disney Company at least gets credit for sticking with the highly ecological Earth Day theme: Why make a new movie when you can just recycle?