Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Animals -- up close and personal

Dad is out searching for food. Meanwhile, Mom is hanging with the kids, who are just beginning to wobble their way into the wider world. If we were talking about people, neither of these statements would generate much excitement. But we happen to be talking about polar bears. We're also talking about "characters" in "Earth," the mildly anthropomorphic Disney documentary that condenses the BBC series "Planet Earth," but still manages to offer some amazing wildlife imagery.

Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield have made a movie that centers on migratory journeys featuring appearances by elephants, lions, humpback whales, penguins and more. My wife complained that "Earth," which attempts to increase our understanding and appreciation of animals, should have taken a less biased attitude toward ravenous lions. She probably has a point. Fothergill and Linfield set up many of the movie's situations in ways that make it difficult not to have a rooting interest. It's difficult not to want the grazing animals to escape the clutches of the animals that hunt them.

Part of this results from a narration -- read by James Earl Jones -- that's mildly informative, but a trifle too cute. Small matter. The real reason to see this film -- and it's an awfully good one -- involves its astonishing photography. The credits list three directors of photography, and they all do terrific work. They bring us close to animals, and create a genuine sense of wonder.

"Earth" reportedly represents Disney's attempt to get back into nature films, a genre that doesn't exactly quicken my pulse. I initially thought about skipping this one, but I put my reservations aside and went. I was glad I did.

Note: Younger children may find some of the scenes disturbing -- a polar bear clawing the back of a walrus in a desperate attempt to stave off death, for example -- but the film needed to include some harsh reality; the filmmakers probably wanted to remind us that nature is full of creatures that eat and are eaten. Those of us who reside at the top of the food chain have a responsibility to make sure that these animals continue to thrive on what has been an amazingly abundant planet. And, yes, the movie contains a bit of a warning about global warming.

Note: Jones took the place of Patrick Stewart who narrated the original BBC version, which took four years to make and has been billed as the world's most expensive documentary.

1 comment:

MIKE said...

A fine review of a beautiful film -- but it missed the larger theme, which Disney soft-pedaled. It's the precariousness of life on this planet, and the very real potential that all the wondrous images and journeys in this film might not be around in a few decades time. James Earl Jones didn't lay it on too thick, using a deft touch and sparse narration.

Disney and BBC chose not to focus on threats to these animals from sources ranging from energy development in caribou habitat to population pressures on elephant herds and lion prides in East Africa. That's the real story. It gave me pause as to whether our lifestyle is sustainable, and caused me to reflect on whether compromise is acceptable if we're determined to defend the earth and her creatures.

As the old saw goes, most environmental victories are temporary, whereas losses of species and habitat tend to be permanent. Do we want to give our children and theirs a world in which the polar bears only hibernate on film and the lynx only range across the forests in our imaginations?