Though it is little more than a repackaging of footage and narrative arcs from the acclaimed BBC/Discovery Channel television series “Planet Earth”, it is hard not to be awestruck by Disneynature’s inaugural release, earth, flaws and all. This epic nature documentary follows three “families” over the course of a year and throughout their travels across the planet. These central families–a family of polar bears and a mother elephant, a mother humpback whale and their respective calves– guide the film and the audience through ever breathtaking ecosystems as they migrate in search of food, water, and means of survival.

The polar bears must brave the summer’s melting ice to find food; the elephants must traverse vast expanses of arid land to find the annually overflowing Okavango Delta; and the humpback whales must migrate 4,000 miles to find krill in the Antarctic before winter freezes the waters again. Throughout each of these stories, the booming narration of James Earl Jones provides facts and figures and grave forecasts for the state of the earth and the animal families on it. Said narration makes it clear that this documentary is, in part, a warning about the impact of humans on the world’s ecosystems, though the film itself offers no solutions or suggestions.

When it’s not sounding the death knell for every “cute” and “interesting” species on the planet, the narration strikes an awkward balance between cute and condescending that may sit well with young audiences but will ruffle the feathers of some older viewers. It attempts to ascribe anthropomorphic meaning to every sequence of images rather than ever allowing the powerful images to speak for themselves. While this helps neatly narrativize the film from start to finish, it seems, at times, overly didactic and delusive.

The style of narration makes the necessary artifice of a film such as earth obvious. Because of it, the audience abhors any of the starving predators trying to make a meal out of the animals whose “families” the film follows but, minutes later, will hope with all their being that the polar bear father will succeed in capturing and killing a baby walrus. This potential contradiction, while lost on young viewers, should make the media-savvy, older generations stop and think about the story that they are being sold. Earth favors humanization and drama over sterile fact. Telling the stories of these animals as if they were human makes the story more immediate to an audience and makes the audience’s emotional attachments to the central characters that much stronger. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, here it seems just a little too manipulative. This is especially true when one considers that in the previous incarnations of these stories the narration was far more subdued and yet the stories were just as powerful.

None of this, however, undermines the real strength of the film: the images. Seeing thousands of caribou blanketing the Canadian landscape; a Papua New Guinean Bird of Paradise trying to attract a mate; or a lone polar bear isolated in the expansive Arctic sea, fighting for footing on melting ice is breathtaking. The filmmakers play masterfully with scale, using the big screen to its fullest effect, and juxtaposing creatures large and small. Every frame of this film, made entirely without CGI, is gorgeous. Moreover, they each document a species worthy of our wonder, our attention, and, increasingly, our attempts at conservation.

© 2009 Neal Solon. All rights reserved.

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