Directors: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield
Starring: Lions, Elephants & Polar Bears, oh my!
Rating: 3 stars (out of five)
Here’s a fact: If you’re going to make a documentary called Earth and fit it into a ninety-minute run time, you are doomed to failure. Big topic, “Earth.” Even if you’re sticking to the natural world, and even if your main goal were to fetishize waterfalls and cute baby animals, you’re still never gonna produce a ninety-minute film worthy of being called Earth.
The first film to be released by the new DisneyNature label (timed to Earth Day!) is in fact a two-year-old BBC-funded documentary that was produced in parallel with Planet Earth, a series whose total ten-hour runtime sounds a little better-suited to covering the subject. Knowing this somehow makes one more forgiving of the flaws of the cinematic release. Earth feels like a poorly assembled hodgepodge of brilliant footage whose glory is nearly lost beneath weak storytelling (and a truly crap score). Imagining the filmmakers having to cut the 600 broadcast minutes they’d already culled from thousands of hours of video to get this hour and a half at least makes you appreciate how stacked against them the deck was.
But let’s not be totally forgiving. Let’s observe that than overreliance on slow-motion photography, repetitive images (in slow motion! Again!) and special effects (time-laps photos turning winter to spring, etc.) take us out of “Earth” and into “studio editing bay.”
But worst is the utter failure of narrative. Beneath a jumble of images and information, we’re meant to be following the tales of three animal families in particular, and a general theme of the dangers animals face. Danger, see, creates tension and drives the story. But since the filmmakers seem determined to sanitize the animal world down to something that won’t upset toddlers, we never see nature red in tooth and claw. A defensible choice, but not if you repeatedly stake your narrative on life-and-death struggles. That’s so stupid, the only thing stupider would’ve been to put Keanu Reeves in a fluffy white bathrobe and cast him as the polar bear. (“The ice is breaking. Whoa.”)
Early in the film, we see migrating herds of caribou, hundreds, maybe thousands of them, walking through boggy grasslands in very impressive overhead shots. Then the wolves! White wolves chase the herd until one drives a confused, terrified calf away from the group. We follow the baby caribou’s flight, we sit on the edge of our seats invested in this chase. Then the caribou slips and the wolf catches up. Apparently resigned, the calf sits down in a little pothole in the grassland, passive, as the wolf stands beside it for a moment. Then the film cuts away, never to return. That intense buildup, followed by the thoughtless cutaway, was the single least satisfying moment of cinema narrative I’ve ever seen, and brother, I’ve seen Ghost Rider.
Later in the film, they start to get it right, most notably in a pulse-pounding chase as a cheetah goes after a gazelle, or something, and the slow-motion helps, ’cause, damn, those guys are fast, and the camera crew is therefore quietly amazing, and so the cheetah jumps on the gazelle’s back, clamps its teeth down “¦ and then we leave the scene. The chase is complete, the climax reached, and we spare the squeamish from realizing nature is not one big fluffy kitten that wants to be scratched behind the ears. But by this time I’ve spent the last half hour still feeling pissed off about the caribou thing.
Quick note: Apparently the original UK version of this film was narrated by Patrick Stewart. For America we get James Earl Jones. James Earl Jones freakin’ rocks, the man’s a voice, and he really helps the unfocused nature of the copy he’s forced to read. But the idea that we had to have an American voice instead of some foreign-sounding limey (one with a Shakespearean voice that’s very well-known to U.S. audiences, no less) just makes me despair for either Americans generally or the studio monkeys who think we’re that shallow.
There is a tremendous amount in here to like, because the film crews on this kicked ass, and it’s a massive undertaking that produced glorious footage. Shame it was apparently too much to be made into a truly satisfying film, but it was still pretty neat to see this stuff on a big screen, which adds a star to the review all on its own. On a TV screen, absent any mitigating DVD bonus features, I’d knock one of those stars right back off.