As a young boy who collected bugs, butterflies, rocks, and basically anything in the natural world that could be captured and observed for a while in a 10- to 50-gallon tank, I was a big fan of Disney nature films. Back then they were called True-Life Adventures. Now the brand is Disneynature, and since Disney got back into the nature film business in spring 2008 they’ve produced six films: “Earth” (2009), “Oceans” (2010), “The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos” (2010), “African Cats” (2011), “Chimpanzee” (2012), and this joint French-American production.
When it opened in France, this 2011 film was called “Pollen,” but when it was released in the U.K. the title was changed to “Hidden Beauty: A Love Story That Feeds the Earth.” For U.S. home video distribution the title was changed yet again. Now it’s “Wings of Life.” That title is disingenuous, because it’s really a film about flowers and pollination. Yes, the cameras capture the usual pollinating suspects—bees and butterflies—and hummingbirds and fruit bats are also featured. But with a voiceover narrator (Meryl Streep) announcing “I am a flower” and that strange anthropomorphic point of view, it’s clear that flowers as the makers of pollen are at the center of the film. To prove it, there are lots and lots of time-lapse shots of flowers opening in close-up.
“Disneynature: Wings of Life” is far from a bad film, but it struck me as one with a core premise that also posed an impossible challenge. How do you focus primarily on time-lapse photography and dramatically slowed-down video, yet avoid slowing down the narrative in the process? And how do you make a subject like flowers and pollination seem interesting? To my mind, you don’t do it with the kind of hushed-voice narrator we heard in the early days of nature filmmaking. It’s a wonder Streep didn’t put herself to sleep, the lines are so pedestrian and the delivery so very, very somnolent.
So I question the approach that writer-director Louie Schwartzberg chose for “Wings of Life,” because it strikes me that there has to be a way to tell an interesting story using equally interesting cinematography in a more upbeat and engaging way. Fifteen minutes into the film my children were begging to watch something else, so “Wings of Life” isn’t exactly a grabber for family movie nights. Even adults will find the documentary style overly reverent.
The sad part is that “Wings of Life” features never-before-seen time-lapse photography of bees, butterflies, birds and bats interacting with flowers. Slowed down with new technology that permits us to see what hasn’t been seen before in the world of rapid movement, it’s actually quite beautiful and phenomenal. Some of the shots are as good as I’ve seen in a nature film. But the cinematography is enhanced by special effects, and that complicates matters for nature-show purists who will wonder when the images are unadulterated cinematography and when they’re CGI-enhanced.
Tone and pacing aside, there are lessons to be learned here, and Disney’s illumination of the species that help pollination provide more than a few first-look moments for nature fans. A hummingbird twirling in midair pursuit of a bug is particularly stunning, as are pregnant bats feast on flowers that open on just a single night. Still, I have to believe there’s a way to showcase the gorgeous photography without turning the film into a virtual screensaver.
The video presentation is stunning, whether in close-up, medium shots, or long shots. We see every hair on a bee’s leg, it’s so incredibly close and personal. Colors are richly hued, and there’s just the slightest bit of texture. There might be a little blur on a few of the hummingbird sequences, but for the most part the flight of insects, birds, and mammals are slowed down so you can see every wing beat with the utmost clarity.
I saw no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer—no compression artifacts, no banding, nothing but a brilliant-looking picture, presented in 1.85:1 widescreen.
The audio is the industry standard English DTS-HD MA 5.1, and while the rear speakers aren’t as abuzz with ambient sound as I would have expected, and the LFE channel feels a bit limp at times, the clarity here is also astounding. Even the silences are pure.
Aside from a teaser for an upcoming Disneynature release about Alaskan grizzlies, there are no bonus features. This is a combo pack, and so it comes with a DVD.
“Wings of Life” will fascinate science nerds, but it’s too slow-moving for a general audience who will find themselves squirming impatiently at least as much as they’re captivated by the impressive cinematography.