[Screen It]

(2009) (Documentary) (G)

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Documentary: A look at animal and plant life on Earth over a one-year period, focusing on a trio of animals and their offspring.
As narrated by James Earl Jones, we view and are informed about a number of species of animals and plant life on Earth over the course of a year. In the arctic, there's a mother polar bear that's given birth to a pair of cubs, and they must contend, as does the father elsewhere, with the warming planet and thus melting ice cover that threatens to limit their ability to hunt.

Further south, in the Kalahari desert, a mother elephant and her offspring are on an arduous trek with their herd to find a seasonal oasis in the middle of otherwise barren and sometimes dangerous lands filled with hungry lions.

And continuing toward the other pole, a humpback whale and her offspring start off on an incredibly long migration toward Antarctica, a journey that's also filled with similar dangers, this time involving great white sharks.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
While it might be just a speck in terms of the overall cosmos, Earth is still a big place for those who call it home. While there are now somewhere in the neighborhood of 6.7 billion human residents, people are far outnumbered by other creatures (single-cell and above) as well as plant life. Yet, for the vast majority of the species homo sapiens, their world exists within just a small radius in miles, with little direct contact regarding many of those critters and plants.

Accordingly, scientists, researchers and documentarians have served as liaisons of sorts for such folks regarding the rest of their world, studying and recording the nature and behavior of our neighbors. While the sheer number of them pretty much eliminates any sort of all-encompassing look at all life on this third rock from the sun, some TV programming has done a decent job of capturing a number of them.

Back in the day, that chore belonged to shows such as "Wild Kingdom," those old Disney nature documentaries (with Rex Allen delivering memorable narration), and those fabulous Jacques Cousteau specials (ditto the narration -- who can forget the French accent). Of recent, the BBC series "Planet Earth" (later broadcast on The Discovery Channel with Sigourney Weaver taking over the narration duties from David Attenborough), joined that illustrious list, delivering what's arguably the best photographed views of Earth's animal and botanical offerings.

Now, Disney has repurposed some of the "Planet Earth" footage for its initial Disneynature theatrical release, the simply titled "Earth." With yet another new narrator -- this time, the booming and authoritative voice of James Earl Jones replacing Patrick Stewart in the UK version -- the offering is something to behold on the big screen. Yet, for those who've seen one or both versions of the source TV series, this might come off as a truncated and hurried compilation of stuff they've already watched.

Granted, few would be willing to sit straight through an 11-hour or more movie about such matters no matter how spectacular the footage (be that of the regular, close-up, aerial, slow-motion or time-lapse variety). And since this one's aimed at kids and their families, much of the "graphic" material from the series has been sanitized down to a G-rated level (although some of the predator and prey chase moments might still be a little too intense for younger viewers).

Throw in a storytelling approach that focuses most on three sets of mothers and their offspring (polar bears, elephants and whales) and a more kid-friendly narrative that anthropomorphizes some of the critters (but thankfully doesn't assign names to any of them), and the stage would seem to be set for a fine time at the movies.

From a visual standpoint, it undeniably is, but from a storytelling aspect, it pales in comparison. Although it focuses on a year in the life of the main and auxiliary critters and moves north to south in terms of latitude, the focus never stays in one place long enough to be satisfying and the temporal setting occasionally goes nonlinear (which isn't a really big deal, but it certainly adds to the disjointed aura).

Compared to something like "March of the Penguins" (that benefitted from focusing on one species and their annual breeding cycle) this feels like a scattershot, CliffsNotes version. And while the global warming issue is undeniably present, it's only touched upon a few times (thus mostly avoiding any sort of too obvious political pontification).

The end result is an offering that looks great on the big screen (the tremendous work of the humans -- directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield -- who captured all of that on camera is shown during the closing credits), but isn't anywhere as exhilarating in terms of telling its main or various sub-stories, or teaching the viewer anything beyond the cursory.

Then again, it simply doesn't have the time or capacity to cover everything, which I suppose will likely end up driving new viewers back to the series that spawned it. Thus completing, the circle of life --uh -- the nature entertainment biz. "Earth" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed April 16, 2009 / Posted April 22, 2009

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