In 2005, this little French nature documentary came along and changed the box-office rules. “March of the Penguins” earned $77 million in U.S. theaters.
And Disney, which distributed the film in some countries, including France, took notice. The studio that invented the modern family-friendly nature film, with its “True Life Adventures” in the 1940s through the ‘60s, has been in and out of nature filmmaking. It was time to send Disney crews into the wild again.
“It seemed like a natural, without playing on words, to carry on this Disney tradition,” says Jean-Francois Camilleri, executive vice president and general manager of Disneynature, the studio’s new documentary division. “Most of the people who are filming in the wild as we speak were inspired by those early Disney films.”
That’s certainly true of Mark Linfield. The co-director of the BBC’s acclaimed “Earth” series, he co-directed Disneynature’s first feature film. “Earth” opens in theaters on Wednesday: Earth Day.
“My earliest wildlife-film memories was watching black and white TV of Perri the squirrel, beavers and nature films in the living room with my family,” Linfield says. “Those were Disney ‘True Life Adventures,’ which were shown in the U.K. when I was growing up. They must have been quite formative because I had an enthusiasm for wildlife from a very early age.”
“Earth” is an introduce-the-new-studio film, says Camilleri, a movie that covers “all the Earth.” “Earth” ranges from pole to pole, through forests, deserts and even into the ocean. It is built on footage (some never broadcast) from the BBC series that Linfield and Alastair Fothergill directed. Camilleri says that the plan “was to launch our first film on Earth Day. The movie we wanted to launch this studio with should be about everything in nature, all parts of the world. The second film will be about the oceans, then film by film we will focus in closer on some details of natural life - chimpanzees, for instance, lions, pollinators.”
The “Earth” team spent 2,000 days filming, with four or five crews in the field at any given time, says co-director Fothergill. “We literally filmed from pole to pole, from the top of mountains to the bottom of the ocean. Over-wintering with emperor penguins at minus 70 degrees centigrade was demanding. Diving with sailfish - 75-mph fish with javelins on their noses - was tricky. Working with elephants in the sandstorm the helicopter almost crashed.”
All in pursuit of images never before seen on screen - sailfish sweeping their sword-like bills through schools of baitfish, stunning them, lions tackling an elephant, birds of paradise offering their courtship displays.
“We have to be innovative,” Camilleri says. “For big-screen versions of these films, you have to be a little bit more on the edge. Alastair and Mark came to us three years ago (the film was commissioned at the same time as the TV series) and are doing films for us. They are probably the best in the world at this genre. We are doing a chimpanzee film and an African cats on the Serengeti film with them.
“Luc Jacquet, who directed ‘March of the Penguins,’ is doing a film for us. Jacques Perrin, who did ‘Winged Migration,’ is doing ‘Oceans’ for us. We have the best nature filmmakers in the world making movies for us.”
The idea, Camilleri says, is to release one Disneynature film a year - “Oceans” in 2010, “Naked Beauty: A Love Story that Feeds the Earth” (about insects and animals that pollinate) in two years, African cats in three years, chimpanzees in 2013.
Will it pay off? Maybe, says Brandon Gray, president and publisher of the movie-biz Web site Boxofficemojo.
“There’s always room for family films, and nature documentaries are part of Disney’s brand,” Gray says. “As long as their expectations are kept in check - it will be hard to match ‘March of the Penguins,’ but they could certainly do ‘Winged Migration’ business ($11 million) - they’ll do well.”
Fothergill says that making family-friendly documentaries for the big screen meant that they wouldn’t be “getting up on our soap box.” The environmental message of the movies would be more subtle, “this is what’s still out there and worth saving.”
And they’d always have that entertaining Disney touch.
“This big cat movie we’re doing is all drama and intrigue, a real Serengeti soap opera,” Fothergill laughs. “And the chimpanzees? They literally are writing their own script. If they get their hands on a typewriter, look out!”
DISNEYNATURE’S TEACHABLE MOMENT
Educators can go to disney.go.com/disneynature to find 58 pages of support materials about great migrations, predators and prey and other phenomena depicted in Earth.