Earth, the first release from Disneynature films, is 85 minutes of jaw-droppingly beautiful clouds, waterfalls, icebergs, and savannahs; of graceful animals, scary animals, funny animals, and excruciatingly cute baby animals. James Earl Jones delivers a narration that is mild and accessible to children. (A typical line: after a shot of a penguin sliding on his belly, Jones says, "You might not know this, but penguins are one of the few creatures born with a built-in toboggan.") It reopens the tradition of Disney nature documentaries, as in the "True Life Adventures" films of 1948-1960, and a better family-friendly nature film can't be found.

I know how enrapturing travel documentaries can be; after viewing one in fifth grade, I came home and told my mother that I really, really wanted to go see New Jersey, the Garden State. What makes Earth different from all previous documentaries, however, is the advances in technology which enable never-before-possible footage. A Cineflex mount that holds a camera steady underneath a helicopter (collectors of odd words will be delighted to learn that it's called a "heligimbal") made it possible to film sequences that would be otherwise inaccessible to, or unsafe for, humans. A scene of wolves hunting caribou, for instance, was filmed from above, one kilometer away. The heligimbal also enables a dizzying shot in which the audience is carried over the edge of a waterfall and then looks back at it, head-downward. That kind of thing, I have to admit, puts New Jersey in the shade.

A view from under the ice

A view from under the ice

The film is the work of Alistair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, both of whom have worked in the BBC's Natural History Unit (Fothergill was its head from 1992-1998). Some filmgoers have noticed that they've seen some of this footage before, in the BBC-Discovery Channel miniseries Planet Earth. At a press conference following the screening, Fothergill explained that the movie and TV projects were commissioned at the same time, and some material appears in both, though employed to tell different stories. It took five years to complete filming, with 2000 days in the field. An audience member asked whether Fothergill and Linfield had to do much editing. The answer was yes.

Earth is structured around the migrations of three animal families: a polar bear and cubs, an elephant and calf, and a humpback whale and her milk-guzzling baby (150 gallons a day). Each family must migrate in search of food (or, in the case of the elephants, water), and each faces danger along the way. There are poignant moments; a dust cloud descends upon the elephants, and when it lifts one calf is seen all alone, still following his mother's footprints, but now going in the wrong direction. Yet, while never denying the harsh truths of the "circle of life," the film does not include bloody scenes of slaughter. We see a cheetah race toward its prey, a young deer-like creature, and as it draws closer the little one stumbles and cannot regain his footing. The cheetah overtakes the deer, surrounding it in an embrace that looks balletic and almost tender. At that moment the camera cuts away, and every parent in the audience stifled a cheer.

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Yes, elephants can be good swimmers

Yes, elephants can be good swimmers

That sort of delicacy is deliberate, according to Linfield: "If any parents at all thought that they couldn't bring their children to see this, because we'd put a little bit of blood in there, that would be a shame." After all, we can come to see that nature must be "red in tooth and claw" without having to see it full-screen. After rooting for one creature or another to survive throughout the film, we are confronted at the end with a dilemma that has no obvious resolution. We don't want the polar bear, whom the narrator calls "Dad," to die of starvation, yet we don't want him to succeed in killing a walrus pup either. The ambivalence the audience experiences at this point is instructive; we grasp, quietly and surely, that earthly life is compelled to subsist on death. Yet when the moment of truth came, it was depicted so subtly that I didn't at first catch what had transpired. Well done!

Another tech advance is a super-slow-motion movie camera. Think this through with me: when running at regular speed, a movie camera takes 24 still photos (frames) per second; that's the point at which the human eye links together still images so that they appear as continuous motion. It's easy to do fast motion; just delete some of the frames. Some early movie cameras ran at less than 24 frames per second, which is why those old movies look jittery.

Going airborne for lunch

Going airborne for lunch

Slow motion, on the other hand, is harder; it requires more than 24 shots per second. The camera must fill the desired time with a greater number of still photos, so it must take them very fast, and the possible speed of such cameras has gradually edged upward over the decades. The makers of Earth used cameras that can shoot one thousand frames per second, permitting action to be slowed down forty times. When a great white shark shoots out of the water, the leap lasts mere seconds; in the movie we see an astounding display as the shark lifts its entire body out of the water and appears to linger in the air.

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The movie concludes after the polar bear-walrus cub dilemma, with a montage of beautiful and exuberant clips, all depicting the world's creatures reveling in their habitats. The last line of narration is, "Yes, it's full of harsh realities, but somehow it's just—paradise." Some viewers have been disappointed that the film doesn't speak more explicitly of global warming or environmental damage. An audience member at the screening told the directors, "The world originally was paradise, but it certainly isn't any more."

Lions lapping it up in Botswana

Lions lapping it up in Botswana

Fothergill responded that, while other documentaries have addressed these questions, he and his co-director believe "people come to the cinema to be entertained, to be amused, to escape. … It has a subtle environmental message, and a lot of people who have seen the movie have said, 'We've come out inspired.' I think there's quite a strong argument that, how can people be expected to care if they're not inspired?

"These wildernesses are still there, these animals are still out there, and I think that if we expect people to care, and if we expect them to change the way they behave, they need to know what they're preserving. What you've just seen is what we think is worth caring for."

Hear, hear!

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. How did you feel when the polar bear was trying to attack the walrus pup? Did you root for one side or the other? Why do we have a world where some creatures must kill to stay alive?
  2. Did you see anything in this movie (whether animal or landscape) that was brand new to you, that you had never seen before? How did it make you feel?
  3. Was the lack of direct comment on the environment in this movie irresponsible on the part of the directors?
  4. Many of the beautiful images in this film induce awe and gratitude to God. But is the beauty really out there, or is it just an interpretation we humans place on things? Animals don't seem to notice the beauty around them. Why do we?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Earth is rated G. There is much to delight children of any age, and no bloody scenes. However, we do see some animals in great danger, and in some cases can conclude that they died. Some children might find that distressing; know your kid.

What other Christian critics are saying:
  1. Plugged In
  2. Crosswalk
  3. Catholic News Service
  4. Past the Popcorn

Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Average Rating
(6 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
Directed By
Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield
Run Time
1 hour 30 minutes
James Earl Jones, Patrick Stewart, Anggun
Theatre Release
April 22, 2009 by Disneynature
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