You may have seen the television ads for "Earth," the debut documentary feature from Disney about the struggles of three animal families (polar bear, elephant and whale) to survive against the elements and, in some cases, other animals. They are the ads that begin "Wherever there is life, there are stories."
That's really what this movie, scheduled to open in theaters Wednesday (Earth Day), is: a gorgeously photographed storybook. More structured than you might be used to with other strictly neutral nature documentaries, "Earth," by British directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, imposes a narrative arc on its planetary subject that follows the seasonal movement of the sun (relative to us here on Earth, that is) from north to south.
It starts with a mother polar bear and her two cubs in Norway, moves to equatorial Africa for a look at a herd of elephants searching for water and ends with the journey of a humpback whale and her calf to Antarctica. In between, there's plenty of jaw-dropping cinematography of waterfalls, icebergs, meadows and mountains, along with by-turns funny and spectacular footage of birds of paradise, sailfish, caribous, wolves and a Mandarin duck or two, among others.
Mandarin duck? Mmm, sounds like dinner.
Seriously, though, one character noticeably missing from this story is man. Although the filmmakers brush up against the notion of human-caused climate change, particularly in the polar bear sequences, there are no other references to Homo sapiens.
If you and I (and our children, the G-rated film's real audience) show up in "Earth" at all, it's by implication only. We may not be the film's stars, but we, and the generation after us, are its subject's custodians.
-- Michael O'Sullivan
Contains scenes of animals in peril, less-than-graphic violence and brief frontal animal nudity.