A film review by Craig J. Koban

EARTH jjj

2009, G, 90 mins.

A documentary written and directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield

Narrated by James Earl Jones.

EARTH is an utterly astonishing film that contains some of the most lush, alive, and vibrant cinematography ever conceived for the big screen.  Lamentably, the mammoth scope and pristine grandeur that this nature documentary creates with its splendid imagery is woefully marginalized by an unnecessarily silly, routine, and annoyingly kid-friendly voice over narration.  

The “story” of EARTH is told with the usually imposing and authoritative inflections of the great James Earl Jones, and that alone should merit positive results.  Alas, the more the film progressed the more his words felt like an irritant and distraction:  Just imagine the type of ethereal impact that this film would have if were told without a human presence throughout it.  If handled this way, EARTH would have certainly attained a level of transcending awe that would have done justice to its visual magnificence.   

To be fair, EARTH is an absolutely titanic-sized motion picture:  Five years in the making, 4500 days in the field at over 200 locations, which included over 250 days of aerial photography alone (that is a stupendous feat, to be sure).  The budget for this incredible effort was $45 million, easily making it the single most expensive documentary ever conceived.   Contrary to widely held belief, EARTH is definitely not a Disney production (despite a heavy handed preponderance of advertising for the film which falls under the studios new Disneynature brand); it was actually a UK-German co-production that was released, to large critical and box office acclaim, in Great Britain in 2007.  Disney's interest in securing the rights to release this film stateside has ties to the studio’s past, not to mention some obvious financial motives.  Between the late 40’s and early 60’s Disney won several Oscars for its “True Life Adventures” documentaries, whihc were critical and audience hits, so it’s no small wonder why Disney felt that returning to the nature well, so to speak, would be a good move. 

EARTH is also not a stand-alone feature film, but rather a companion piece to the 2006 BBC/Discover Channel series PLANET EARTH (anyone out there that inanely doubts why Blu-ray is vastly superior to standard-def DVD needs to watch this series on the superior hi-def format).  EARTH uses many of the same sequences in the TV series, but conveniently edits them in a different form.  Employing the latest in high definition and 35mm cameras and – as the makers are very quick to point out – using not one frame of CGI augmentation, EARTH certainly deserves accolades as a dazzling, eye popping spectacle and a landmark achievement.   But – gee whiz – they just had to have the likes of James Earl Jones lending his vocal talent to give human traits to the animals presented in the film, which sort of taints the overall effect.  Now, clearly there is a need for the film to relay specific information, but I think that the wiser choice would have been to simply use well placed text and subtitles adjacent to the imagery.  And for that matter, why did Disney feel the need to replace Patrick Stewart (the narrator of the BBC version)?  Is he not well known enough for American consumption?  This is an odd choice. 

Nonetheless, EARTH is, as stated, a tour de force of unbelievably gorgeous camera work.  It depicts both the diversity of wild animals and creatures – large and small – across the planet as well as the impediments to their future survival.  Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield (both of whom worked on PLANET EARTH) ultimately decide to focus the film's attention to a full year’s cycle on the planet that begins in the Arctic circle and travels all over the globe.  To streamline things even more, the pair distils EARTH in three distinct storylines following the lives of polar bears, dolphins, and humpback whales.  We first meet up with the bears, which emerge after a very long hibernation, as the mother tries to accustom her young to the natural world around them.  Papa bear, on the other hand, has a real threat when it’s revealed that the escalating melting of the ice sheets greatly impedes his ability to get food.  We then see elephant herds migrating to the floodwaters of the Okavango Delta, all while being sought after by ravenous and salivating lions (they are a bit cruelly painted as bad guys here).  Finally, we meet up with two whales that are trying to make the enormously long trip from their tropical waters to Antarctica feeding grounds.  Predictably, we also see many more species as they intersect with the “main characters” of EARTH (like, for example, walruses, baboons, wolves, sharks, lynxes, and many more). 

EARTH has so many moments of jaw-dropping magnificence that describing them all would be fruitless.  Yes, the film professes to use no “visual effects”, but it still uses everyday Hollywood tricks, like tracking shots, slow motion, dissolves, image juxtaposition, and aerial and time-lapse photography, the latter being some of the most accomplished and spectacular I’ve ever seen (just look at the sequence where the North American woodlands are transformed in seconds from snow to water droplets to orchids of daffodils).   Even more time-lapse is used to show seasonal changes across the globe and, in other instances, give us a more intimate look at vast environmental occurrences (like the massive clouds the sweep up the Himalayan mountains) and, in more interesting sections, show the growth of jungle spores and fungi.  Seriously, this is fascinating stuff. 

One sequence alone is worth mentioning for its radiance: We see a truly remarkable scene of a six-plumed bird of paradise performing its mating dance that becomes something almost hypnotically alluring.  The sheer diversity of the bird life on display here from the New Guinea rainforest is staggering.   On the larger side of things, spectacular shots of African elephants are filmed in the Kalahari Desert and, in one unforgettable moment, a band of tigers all gang up on one elephant in an attempt to turn him into lunch (no easy feat, even for a multitude of meat-hungry adversaries).  Some individual moments even have a sadness to them, as in one touching scene where a polar bear is nearly stranded at sea and barely makes it ashore where he becomes so desperate for food that he gathers up enough courage to attack a whole heard of walruses (which, as the film wisely points out, are not as helpless as we think they are).  If there was one shot that took my proverbial breath away then I would have to call a tie:  The first shows great white sharks – in super, super slo-mo – flying out of the oceans and into the air while swallowing its aquatic prey whole.  The other involves a next-to-impossible aerial shot of Demoiselle cranes during their migration across the Himalayas; there are so many of these birds occupying the frame that they almost, from afar, resemble a vast cloud formation - it is one of the most miraculous sequences ever captured on film. 

Again, the film works best when viewers are allowed to simply stare at the screen and drink in all of its visual dynamism.  James Earl Jones always brings a level of gravitas to just about any part, but the material he is saddled with here is decidedly of the lame variety, certainly so much so that it's sometimes embarrassing for the revered actor.  What is really apparent is that Disney is certainly appeasing the 5-10 year-old crowd (which is not a bad thing), but too often Jones’ words come off as laughably dumbed down for a young tyke's consumption.  Even more glaring is the way EARTH is almost annoyingly sanitized throughout.  Bloodshed and animal violence are all but muted here (sometimes we see animals stalk and attack one another, but the end results are almost never shown on screen).  I guess this family friendly approach is understandable, but it sometimes allows EARTH to come across more as picturesque than intriguing and revealing about the nature of its beasts.  The predatory nature of the animals presented is clearly an important facet to their existence, so to neuter this material completely from the film gave me an undesirable impression that I was not getting the big picture here.  Being too cute is not necessarily a good thing.  Beyond that, EARTH is also a film that desperately begs for the expansive IMAX format (the prospect of seeing the film using that technology inspires legitimate goose bumps, indeed). 

Despite some of my nitpicky criticisms, EARTH is an absolute visual triumph through and through, so much so that it really becomes excruciatingly hard to dislike it altogether.  Even though having the voice of Darth Vader and CNN is more than a glaring miscalculation here, EARTH nonetheless has a definitive eco-friendly message, which is not without substance for young viewers take in while watching it.  Considering the relative slew of banal, mindless, and flavourless family films that permeate the cinemas these days, EARTH emerges as a very effective bit of counter-programming.  It also is a minor little miracle film for how it effortlessly engages viewers – whether they are 5 or 55 – to stare up at the screen for 90 minutes to behold the natural and exotic beauty of our precious green planet.  For many moments, I certainly did gaze at the silver screen with an innocent, childlike fixation and interest.  Not too many films are capable of eliciting such a primal reaction.  EARTH is unquestionably up to the task. 

 

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CHIMPANZEE  (2012 jj

 

 

 

 

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