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Movie Tuesday: Earth (G)

(Sorry about the late posting.–CF)

 Location, Location
All the earth’s a stage in Disney’s true-life adventure
By Jared Peterson

I’ve seen Earth before, and you may have, too. It is a feature-length adaptation of portions of the BBC’s world-encompassing documentary series, “Planet Earth”, which has been available on DVD and public and cable TV since 2007. Breathtaking photography, unprecedented access to remote and untouched wilderness, thoughtful and intimate examination of the lives and circles of animal life in every corner of the globe—all of them are here, but in digest form and pitched for a generation unaccustomed to seeing animals that don’t sing, wear pants or make fart jokes. In Disney spirit, it is a family affair, tracing the paths of several clans of different shapes and sizes—cuddly polar bears, goofy birds, loping elephants and majestic blue whales. It follows the sun and the seasons from north to south. (Some of the storylines can be seen in the documentary’s first episode, called “Pole to Pole”.) James Earl Jones is our narrator here, and he lends a powerful and tender voice to this warm and somewhat fuzzy version of the travelers’ tales.

Even the most gifted amateur photographer will be humbled and amazed by the sights captured here. State-of-the-art high-definition cameras were mounted on helicopters and land rovers, orbiting satellites and hot-air balloons, not to mention the backs of intrepid camera operators with boots and bags and little else. (Clips during the end credits give us a sense of the lengths they went to bringing the world to us.) The imagery is transcendent, taking the viewer into realms most will surely never visit. These offer arcane and privileged glimpses, not just of animal life but of seemingly full-fledged animal culture. Anthropomorphizing is unavoidable, and just plain good fun. Birds of paradise have colorful and complex dances meant to attract potential mates, and dancing celebrities look staid and reserved in comparison. Baboons cross marshes with unsteady steps and knitted brows, their pained expressions on par with those of the finest silent-film actors. But the polar bears are the stars of the show. Watching their first emergence from their snowy warren, the cubs sledding down icy slopes reminded me of a certain holiday-themed soda commercial, and it’s easy to forget that these beautiful animals are known to occasionally dine on the likes of us.

The most stunning image in Earth comes two-thirds of the way in, when the blue calm of the ocean is ruptured by the fearsome jaws of a great white shark. It rises in a burst of foam and spray, carrying the limp arc of a seal’s body behind the jagged blades of its teeth. The attack unfolds in stunning slow motion, super-high-speed cameras expanding a single fateful second to nearly a minute of screen time. At the apex of its flight, the shark leaves the sea completely, twisting and torquing feet above the water. It is, unequivocally, an amazing feat of reportage, at once chilling and absolutely riveting.

So, clearly there’s kid stuff and there’s “you had to learn sometime” stuff, and despite its softer edges, this Earth still revolves around some of the harsh realities of life on this planet. Our storyteller is gentle but firm when he reminds us early on that not all of the players here will survive a year in the wilds. There are a few instances where the death of an animal is portrayed, the victims caught by cruel circumstance or in the rigid rings of the food chain. Encounters between predator and prey are chosen to dramatize the teeth-grinding tension of battles that, in fact, can go either way. When a lone wolf pursues a caribou calf across the uneven ground of a northern steppe, Jones’ tells us by way of both assurance and warning that this is an even contest—it will end only when the one tires or the other stumbles. For what it’s worth, there’s no blood or gore. In all but one event, the moment of death is not shown (and even in Shark v. Seal the end is bloodless and mercifully quick). Younger elementary-aged kids at my screening were shocked by, and subsequently quite vocal about, the defeats of the “characters” they naturally rooted for. The roars and cold stares of some of the predators might also be unsettling to some viewers, young or old. Even delicate description and skillful presentation do not diminish the emotional impact of nature taking its course. Even so, there’s no profanity, naturally (though I’d have paid triple to listen to Jones freak the freak out at that shark attack). Finally, in one scene, mold and fungi grow in gooey time-lapse, but the creepier, crawlier populations of our planet—insects, snakes and the like—go unexplored here.

At an April 26th screening, the following films—none of which have received ratings so far—were previewed: G-Force, which I was really hoping was about Japanese teens who dress up as birds and fight a super villain, but which is actually about talking guinea pigs who dress up as humans and fight a super villain—I like my idea better; Where the Wild Things Are, which is what would happen if Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson had a sleepover—seriously, though, it looks amazing; and Oceans, Disney’s follow-up to Earth, to be released this time next year.

Jared Peterson lives every week like it’s Shark Week. He writes about film, education and popular culture for Chesapeake Family. He most recently reviewed 17 Again.


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