Film Review: Earth

Spectacular footage and a low-key ecological message make this first release from the Disneynature label a valuable family offering.

The Walt Disney Company is returning to its 1950s live-action roots in nature documentaries with an ambitious new program called Disneynature, a schedule of theatrical features spotlighting wildlife and the environment. The debut attraction is Earth, a spin-off of the BBC “Planet Earth” series that has found a huge cable-TV audience and become the go-to demo disk for the Blu-ray home-video format.

Still waiting to invest in a Blu-ray player, I can’t weigh in on the relative merits of Earth the feature film versus the home high-def experience, but newcomers should be awed and delighted by Disney’s Earth Day release, co-directed by “Planet Earth” creator Alastair Fothergill and episode director Mark Linfield.

Earth covers the planet from north to south, pole to pole, while recounting the odysseys of three disparate animal-kingdom parents and offspring: polar bears near the North Pole, elephants in Africa’s Kalahari Desert, and humpbacked whales traveling from the tropics to Antarctica. The decision to focus on the parental bond is a tip-off that Disney is looking to increase the “Awww” factor here and reach out to the broadest possible audience, but the sentiment doesn’t detract from the overall sense of wonder you’ll have on exiting the theatre.

In spanning the globe, the production neatly illustrates what an efficient ecosystem the Earth is, while implicitly conveying how vulnerable it is to the threat of climate change. The migrations of the animals seen here are all dramatically impacted by the altered rhythms of the Earth, which make their annual journeys increasingly arduous. The movie doesn’t overstress its ecological message; watching these creatures struggle and suffer is enough to inspire some valuable classroom or private discussions with younger viewers.

Earth consistently offers eye-filling aerial photography, including spectacular views of thousands of caribou on a 2,000-mile migration and dense flocks of birds filling the screen, but it’s the more intimate moments of bonding or conflict between the animals you’ll remember. The most eerie are the infrared nighttime shots of lions and elephants warily sharing a watering hole, culminating with the entire pride attacking one unfortunate pachyderm. This comes after wrenching aerial glimpses of a mother elephant and her calf, temporarily separated from the herd during a blinding sandstorm.

We’re frequently reminded here that hunger is a driving force in the animal realm. Slow-motion footage shows a cheetah bearing down on a young gazelle; a great white shark leaps out of the ocean and clenches a hapless seal in its jaws. (The filmmakers cut away from the grisly aftermath to retain their G rating.) And most poignantly, a polar bear, whose survival is more and more threatened by the melting of the Arctic ice, desperately tries to snatch a walrus cub while risking injury from the tusks of dozens of protective adults.

This remarkable footage isn’t always allowed to speak for itself, as George Benton’s music score can be bombastic and intrusive. The familiar rumbling bass of narrator James Earl Jones is always welcome, even if the narration itself is sometimes elementary. (Is the lynx really “the very essence of wilderness”?) But these are minor caveats about a project that’s ideal family viewing. Stick around for the end credits, a very entertaining behind-the-scenes look at the challenges of capturing all these privileged views of nature.