In Earth, the first film from Disney's new documentary unit, Disneynature, the studio serves up a sort of nature documentary's greatest hits, a film that covers every corner of the natural world, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, jungles to deserts. It's a grab bag of beautiful nature footage, a bit all over the place in subject. But it serves to introduce the sorts of films Disneynature will make and places it will go.
Earth was compiled from the BBC's terrific nature series Planet Earth, which gives it more of an edge than you might think, given Disney's historic soft and fuzzy treatment of the natural world, those long-ago True Life Adventures. Here, we meet funny birds of paradise and cuddly penguins, but also a doomed polar bear and a great white shark dining on seals. Wolves chase caribou, and a cheetah runs down a gazelle. Nothing too graphic, but it creates drama, as it's only natural to root for the hunted in a film like this.
"This is the circle of life that most of us in our urban lives have lost touch with," James Earl Jones, The Lion King's Mufasa, narrates without a hint of irony.
We follow elephants as they march through the Kalahari, seeking salvation at a far-off watering hole. And we see lions chase down an elephant, leap on its back and go for the kill.
The footage itself is, frame by frame, striking — stunning Alpine vistas, sweeping desert landscapes, whales at sea, flocks in mass migration and vast herds of this or that critter avoiding predators. The geography lessons in this Alastair Fothergill/Mark Linfield film make it play like an introduction to our small, blue planet, an Earth 101. But it's not just educational and "good for you." There's comedy, too — monkeys daintily crossing a river, birds of paradise going through their loony courtship rituals.
And there is a message to this film about a fragile "changing planet" — that the planet is getting warmer. That's why polar bears are drowning or starving, why deserts are expanding and elephants are dying of thirst.
It's not stylistically different from a nature documentary you might see on TV or in a science museum's giant-screen theater. The polar bear's plight is strikingly similar to what we saw in 2007's Arctic Tale. It's the dazzling images, the occasional "never seen before" moments that sell it, though not that many qualify as "never seen before."
But what Earth lacks in focus or originality it more than makes up for in branding and mission statement. If this is the sort of documentary Disney will be putting into theaters, Disneynature is a most welcome addition to the movie-going mix.