The most accomplished theatrically-released nature documentary since 2003's "Winged Migration," "Earth" is every bit as majestic and eye-opening as the title infers. That it pretends humans do not exist (save for one passing line of narration by the regal James Earl Jones) hardly matters. As the formative release from Disneynature, a non-fictional branch of Walt Disney Pictures, the film works on multiple levels. As an introduction for young children to the wide, varied animal kingdom and the world's so-called "circle of life," it will delight, educate and, on occasion, frighten. For older audiences, the picture is a stunning visual poem and an often enlightening journey to places and creatures that have never quite been seen this way before.
In bringing "Earth" to fruition, directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield (BBC's famed "Planet Earth") have traveled across the globe, shaping their footage of wildlife and barely touched landscapes into a cohesive narrative set over the course of a year, from one winter to the next. While a certain amount of storytelling artifice is obvious, the picture nonetheless speaks volumes about the universal and specifically individual experiences that all living organisms face as the rhythm of the seasons pass them by. Bookending the story is a polar bear family in the high Arcticthat of a mother and her two cubs, and a father who has journeyed off on his own to find food. As the ice begins to melt and his stomach stays empty, the sad truth is that he may not be coming back.
Rapturously photographed by cinematographers Richard Brooks Burton, Mike Holding and Andrew Shillabeer, the exquisite images soak up the screen. From the tranquil, virtually untouched solitude of the snow-covered, coniferous tree-filled Boreal Forest, to the aerial ride over and down cascading waterfalls, the vistas on hand are nothing short of extraordinary. As for the material involving the many animals of the world, they offer some of the funnier, more exciting, and frequently gut-wrenching material of any film released so far this year. A one-on-one tundra chase between a caribou calf and a hungry wolf, the slightest stumble potentially causing the former to lose its life, is the sort of edge-of-your-seat set-piece that could put to shame any Jason Statham or Bruce Willis action movie. Later fights to the death, such as a pride of lions ganging up on a sole elephant, are impossible to look away from. The fact that the movie cuts away before these face-offs become graphically violent in no way lessens the impact, because it is obvious what is to happen next. Another sequence where a baby elephant in need of water gets separated from the pack during a dust storm and begins following footprints headed in the opposite direction is unexpectedly poignant.
Lest the film seem to be all gloom and doom, "Earth" mostly retains a light, inviting tone, and James Earl Jones' narration, emulating the Disney docs of the 1940s and '50s, is highly entertaining. The goofy mating ritual of the rainforest's Superb Bird of Paradise is a vision it is safe to say this viewer has never seen before, and it is hilarious to behold. A family of baby chicks' failed first flight as they jump from a tree and plummet to the mound of leaves below them is akin to a slapstick symphony. It's adorable. Being a Disney-branded feature, "Earth" aims not to tread into too dark of territory, but also treats the reality of the world around us with an honest, if tasteful, eye. The results are pretty remarkable, the beauty of nature receiving a familiar, but still enduring and aesthetically deserved, moment in the spotlight.