Thursday, April 30, 2009

Earth: Familiarity breeds disappointment

Earth (2007) • View trailer for Earth
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: G, but awfully intense and grim for young viewers
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.30.09
Buy DVD: Earth • Buy Blu-Ray: Disney Nature Earth [Blu-ray]

Disney's Earth  the much-ballyhooed first release from DisneyNature, a new studio imprint that will focus on wildlife documentaries  is a bait-and-switch con job.

Nowhere in any of this film's self-congratulatory promotional information  and certainly not in any of the TV spots or movie theater previews  will you learn that this film is little more than "best of" highlights from the sumptuous 2006 Discovery Channel series, Planet Earth.
Even with their mother's care, only 50 percent of new polar bear cubs survive
their first year, and more are lost when they first leave their mother, to make
their way alone. The polar bears followed in Earth were filmed on Kong Karls
Land, a group of islands between the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean. In this
land, part of Norway, the "midnight sun" lasts from April 20 until Aug. 23,
and the polar night lasts from Oct. 26 through Feb. 15.

Indeed, this big-screen version was released in the United Kingdom in 2007, with Patrick Stewart replacing Sigourney Weaver as narrator. Here in the States, Stewart has been replaced by James Earl Jones. (That's Hollywood!)

Mind you, the already opulent photography looks even more stunning on the big screen, and directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield are to be congratulated for the magnificence and enormity of their accomplishment.

But I was expecting a new film, thank you very much, and I became increasingly puzzled by the sense of deja vu that accompanied last week's preview screening. Eventually, though, all doubts were erased: the spectacular slow-motion shot of a great white shark chomping into a seal was far too memorable, as was the chilling, disheartening saga of the desperate polar bear that tries unsuccessfully to make a meal of a walrus cub ... and, having failed, sinks onto the polar ice, closes its eyes and prepares to starve to death.

Arbitrary condensations of much larger works run many risks, and that's the first problem plaguing this edit of Earth: It's relentlessly harsh and depressing. Stretched out across 11 episodes and literally scores of individual animal stories, when originally broadcast in 2006, the grimmer aspects of "Nature's design" were easier to endure, as they were bookended by numerous lighter, happier and more triumphant narratives.

Here, though  with a running time of only 96 minutes  it feels like one sad conclusion after another: a white wolf running down a young caribou; a cheetah doing the same with a gazelle; a baby elephant so weakened during a trek with its mother through the inhospitable Kalahari Desert, and so blinded by dust, that it literally walks into a tree stump it can't see; another elephant overwhelmed by a starving pride of lions; the aforementioned shark attack; and, as a finale, the gloomy demise of the hungry polar bear.

Parents intending to bring small children to this film should think long and hard before doing so. The "cuteness factor" of several other scenes  polar bear cubs, Mandarin duck chicks making their first attempt at flight  is seriously undercut by all this trauma. The elephant sequences, in particular, are very hard to watch.

The other problem plaguing this big-screen condensation is a reach that repeatedly exceeds its grasp.

A few of the storylines  the polar bears, the elephants and a humpback whale mother and her calf  are given room to breathe, their narratives edited into several "chapters" that we return to, after diversions with other critters, as the film progresses.

For the most part, though, the approach is unfocused and disorganized. The "flow" is off. Because Earth tries to include a little bit of everything, we don't get a strong sense of continuity or detail. Right about the time we get involved with this bird, or that primate, the film takes us someplace else: again and again and again.

Honestly, I walked away with a better sense of the change of planetary seasons  as revealed by trees, flowers, shrubbery and grasslands reviving after winter, blooming and then again going dormant as spring and summer give way to autumn and winter  than any enlightenment regarding the many animal species briefly profiled here.

And maybe it was my familiarity with the material, but this film also felt slow and occasionally boring. The final half-hour drags, and a climactic recap of scenes we've already watched seems needlessly superfluous. What, Disney thought we needed reminding?

Definitely not.

We actually need more of the drama present in (for example) a sequence featuring flocks of demoiselle cranes, as they struggle along a migratory route that forces them to fly over our planet's highest mountain peaks  the Himalayas  en route to their breeding grounds in India. Punishing winds force the birds to abandon their first attempt, and we can well imagine how much more tired they are, on the following day, as they try again.

This short drama has a definite beginning, breathtaking middle act and satisfying conclusion. Too many other sequences follow the classic pattern established by Uncle Walt's "True-Life Adventure" films, produced between 1948 and 1960, which often went for little beyond sight gags enhanced by orchestral rim shots: bobbing birds of paradise and their admittedly hilarious mating displays; prissy baboons gingerly wading through the water of the Okavango Delta, obviously hating to get wet.

Unfortunately, 21st century audiences are more savvy and more demanding than their post-WWII counterparts; we expect more than cheap giggles from our nature-oriented documentaries. Merely in the last five years, we've enjoyed a wealth of big-screen films such as March of the Penguins and dozens of IMAX features, in addition to the Discovery Channel miniseries that begat this "new" Disney effort.

Most do a much better job of profiling their animal subjects.

All that said, I don't wish to suggest that Earth is a waste of time: far from it. Viewers who missed the Discovery Channel miniseries will find much to admire here, starting with the stunning photography captured by a team of 60 cinematographers working at 200 locations in 64 countries, over a period of five years.

And I must give credit to those who wisely decided to avoid potentially contentious hard-sell. The phrase "global warming" isn't used; the script instead more clinically references the "warming" of various regions, and we witness the results. Polar bears hunting on pack ice find that their stable surface is melting much sooner than usual; watching an adult male struggle to walk in this slushy mess, and frequently falling through the ice, is heartbreaking.

In this case, the picture is far more powerful than the overheated rhetoric from somebody on Capitol Hill.

No doubt wanting to launch DisneyNature in style, the studio perhaps can be forgiven for "borrowing" such impressive material for this debut feature.

Next time, though, let's see some new work, hmm?

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