Disney counterprograms Earth Day this year with Earth, an expansive documentatation of our dear planet and the life that exists from the North Pole to Antarctica. As soon as it begins, narrator James Earl Jones informs us that planet earth is uniquely positioned in the galaxy to host life but, in a deeply ironic twist, (spoiler alert) is also constantly trying to kill us all.
Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield (both producers on the phenomenal "Blue Planet" series), Earth is a feature-length spin-off from the BBC TV series "Planet Earth". The film chronicles the wobbling first steps of two polar bear cubs, a herd of migrating elephants, many different kinds of exotic birds and a humpback whale traveling south to find food as she slowly starves from feeding her calf 150 gallons of milk per day.
Unfortunately, there are two opposing elements at work in the execution of earth. The viewer is made immediately aware (and not just by all the Disney-branded pre-roll that advertises the Earth Day 2010 release of their aquatic life documentary Oceans) of the luxurious expense of this project. High-speed cameras, strikingly exotic destinations and an intensely moody score performed by the Berlin Philharmonic give the production an immediate elegance. But the muddy cinematography (all three Directors of Photography credited to this project are making their lensing debut here), tediously episodic pacing, obsessive anthropomorphizing and a near pornographic fixation on brutal killings makes earth smack of a made-for-cable production rushed to the theaters.
As with most of Disney's narrative productions, the moments depicting broad vistas are suitably awe-inspiring. Think of the first time you saw the animation of the chandelier in their 1991 production of Beauty and the Beast, here a piece time-lapsed footage of colorful fungus growing across an inhospitable boulder. Additionally, the cheap levity of exotic tropical birds mating and a family of ducks learning to fly works very well. But the more intimate moments of the film lack narrative cohesion becomes at best dull and at worst unsettling. It's not that the morbid approach can't work in the nature documentary form (recall the greater moments of Werner Herzog's narration from Grizzly Man). Yet it's a discomfiting move given this film's intended audience.
It's a rare experience for me to sit in a theater and feel like a schoolmarm. However, this film's G-rating is utterly inappropriate. Especially so when you consider that the ultra-violent Crank High Voltage skidded by with an R-rating the same week the producers of Bruno announced they had to eliminate gay content from their comedy to be downgraded from an NC-17. Further evidence that the dysfunction of the MPAA depicted in Kirby Dick's 2006 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated is still alive and well.
Earth opens this week in theaters nationwide.