Circles of Life
It goes without saying that the cinematography in Earth is breathtaking. Anyone who has seen any part of the Plant Earth TV series will find the sharp close-ups, balletic movement, and surreal beauty familiar. The first film released by the new Disneynature imprint, Earth quite literally explores the planet from pole to pole.
Directors Alastair Fotherfill and Mark Linfield reign in some of the sprawl by focusing on three animal families in migration. A polar bear and her two cubs in Kong Karls Land, Norway race unwittingly against time to reach the sea ice before it melts; an elephant and her calf trek across the Kalahari desert to the Okavango Delta in search of water; and a baby humpback whale and his mother, starving, migrate from the tropics to the summer waters of Antarctica, teeming with krill. Each family faces myriad difficulties, from predators to harsh weather.
The film concentrates on natural threats, making just brief mention of the fact that “our planet is warming” and assigning no cause for it. But its seeming “apolitical” approach is also a missed educational opportunity. The plight of the polar bear is especially alarming: as sea ice melts earlier each year, bears lose their hunting platform and end up starving (as we see happen to the cubs’ father here) or getting caught out at sea and drowning. As the film endeavors to make us care about these animals, it also leaves us feeling helpless and uninformed.
Taking its time with the polar bears, Earth introduces the whales and elephant rather late. This typifies its struggle with competing organizing principles, as it spins off into multiple themes, from geography, seasons, and plant life to the sun, its warming effects as well as its annual rhythms and the earth’s pivotal 23.5 degree tilt towards it. We do learn about dozens of different plant and animal species, each one more spectacular than the last, but so much detail coming from so many directions borders on information overload. It’s easy to lose our emotional connection to the central figures.
That’s odd, considering that Earth caters to a younger audience, keeping its biological and environmental lessons at a basic level of understanding. (Ocean warming leads to mountain snows and melting, with runoff eventually flooding the Okavango Delta.) Similarly, James Earl Jones’ narration is shot through with cutesy remarks such as “Unlike human children, polar bear cubs don’t always listen to their mothers.” Despite such playfulness, Earth does not shy away from “harsh realities” of the Animal Planet sort, the problems caused by scare food or the relations between hunter and hunted. Over a dramatic tight shot of a cheetah, so close we can hear it panting, Jones’ soothing intonations describe (in the film’s biggest understatement and neat allusion to The Lion King), “The circle of life that most of us in our urban lives have lost touch with.” Hunting scenes are bloodless, but still powerful, even a little overwrought, with the requisite slow motion imagery and sad-sounding music to wring every bit of suspense from the moment.
The affective emphasis of these scenes and others is exacerbated by the movie’s insistent anthropomorphic renderings of its animal subjects, plainly emulating March of the Penguins. At its best, this leads to empathy: the elephants’ struggle is surely desperate and moving, even occasionally stressful for us. But at its worst, the tactic turns trite. When we see a last shot of the baby bears, now grown and making their way across the ice, we are told, “Their father’s brave spirit will always live on in their hearts,” as if they are somehow mourning him. It’s an unnecessary addition of theatricality that strays from Disneynature’s proclaimed vision: “Nature invents the most beautiful stories.”