"Earth" is an ironically appropriate title, since this 90-minute film is the shortened Disneynature version of the 550-minute BBC series, "Planet Earth." For this severely yet smoothly edited version, the Disney folks decided to focus on three animal "families" from the TV series: polar bears, elephants, and humpback whales. Other species also make the cut--including predators.
I understand that the Disney people traumatized a generation with "Bambi" and "Old Yeller," but it's still surprising that this family-friendly version of "Planet Earth" includes so many downer moments involving animals we've been following, as they're attacked by predators or otherwise doomed to die. My seven-year-old daughter was in tears, and my older son remarked how surprised he was that some of the footage was left intact, given that it's a Disney-edited version. Protective parents and those who are squeamish should know that "Planet Earth" filmmaker Alastair Fothergill's philosophy was to show the predator's chase and eventual meal, but to tone down the graphic kill. Disney goes one better. Lions are shown gang-attacking a small elephant, for example, but the cameras allow the chase to go into the bushes without following. Though Disney eliminates the next shot of the pride of lionesses feasting and the announcement that a single kill can feed the whole group a number of days, it'll still be enough to disturb sensitive, pet-loving children. Same with Great White Shark attacks on seals, or a cheetah's pursuit and capture of a Thompson's Gazelle. Then again, parents can see scenes like that coming (this is, after all, a leisurely paced BBC film with a new Disney-scripted narration) and cover children's eyes or send them to get a snack until the trauma is over. To Fothergill's (and Disney's) credit, there are as many shots of failed hunts as there are successful ones. The most poignant, actually, is the case of a poor polar bear who was forced to swim for 60 miles because his world melted. Tired, exhausted, and not having eaten for a month, he lands on a rocky place inhabited by walruses. He tries for a baby, but the adults circle up, as we've seen other species do in this series. Out of desperation he attacks a larger walrus and fails. As he curls up in the sand, wounded, just a few feet away from the colony of walruses that ironically could have nourished him, you can't help but feel for the predator this time around, as we watch him lay there, resigned to his own death. Then again, the Disney True-Life Adventures nature series from the 1950s was only a mild whitewash. Predators still were a threat. I just don't recall that those scenes were as pointedly drawn as some of these . . . or maybe I was already traumatized by the shooting of Bambi's mother.
What's here is expertly edited so that it really does provide a nice alternative for those who want to get the flavor of the BBC series without the time commitment. I mean, 550 minutes requires seven nights to get through, so "Disneynature: Earth" may appeal to those with a casual interest in the nature series. The surprise, to me, is that Disney adapted an existing work, rather than getting back into the wildlife game on their own. But, of course, things have changed a great deal in wildlife and nature photography since Disney changed focus. It took 40 camera teams five years to shoot the BBC series at 200 different locations scattered across "Planet Earth," and those locations weren't just randomly chosen. The emphasis for this series is on the superlative. Among other things, even in the shortened Disney version we witness the largest animal migration on the planet (caribou) and watch the largest land carnivore (polar bear) do his thing. Whether the cameras are following the animals or panning great vistas, the emphasis for this series is on the extreme. And that includes extreme beauty.
If you've seen "The Blue Planet," you already know the style of filming. It's just the locations and subject matter that are different. We journey across the planet to witness things that few people see--many of them photographed for the first time. This show makes explorers of us all. So much so, that you can't help but wish that Lewis and Clark had a HD video camera with them as they made their journey from Pittsburgh to the Pacific, or that Darwin had one with him on the Beagle as he explored Earth's southern hemisphere. "Planet Earth" may entertain and inform us now, but you can't help but think what an important record this is for future generations. In many respects, "Planet Earth" showed just how far nature photography has come, and for me, the highlights of that series weren't the main narrative threads, but glimpses of nature's oddities in sometimes comic action. There are unfortunately not enough such moments in the Disney-edited version, like the hilarious mating attempt of a bird of paradise.
The new script (credited to Fothergill, Mark Linfield, and Leslie Megahey) is quite good, though, as is music composed by George Fenton and performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker. And who else would Disney get to talk about the "circle of life" to a family audience but the voice of Simba's father (James Earl Jones), who narrates here in place of Richard Attenborough and (in the American version of the series) Sigourney Weaver. But I think most of the credit for this pared-down version not feeling all cut up has to go to film editor Martin Elsbury, a veteran of "The Life of Birds," "Blue Planet," "The Life of Animals," and "Nova." Without knowing that this was edited from a much longer work, you'd never know it.
The 1080p picture looks great, especially presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio that fills the entire screen. Colors are bright and vivid, blacks are strong, and the level of detail is phenomenal. You notice the HD picture the most in scenes where various birds of paradise mate, or in extreme close-ups. The roughest moments, meanwhile, come during the night shots of the lions and of some time-lapse shots of jungle seedlings trying to sprout. Overall, though, it's a very good HD picture.
The audio is an English DTS-HD 5.1 DTS Surround (48 kHz, 24-bit), with audio options in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish. Aside from the soundtrack, it's almost exclusively Jones' deep-voiced narration, with animal emissions and ambient sounds turning up on the effects speakers.
Exclusive to Disney Blu-ray are filmmaker annotations that are playable as a separate stream on players with Bonus View capability (Profile 1.1). The film's pacing is leisurely enough so that such pop-ups are actually easy to process and a nice complement to the narrative. The other bonus feature, other than a DVD copy of the movie, is "Earth Diaries: The Making of Earth The Movie," which gets into the philosophy and editing strategies, as well as explaining the lengths to which the BBC team went to get the materials that served as a starting point for the Disney crew.
"Planet Earth" was a wonderful nature film, and "Earth" is an accomplished abridged version. It manages to capture the spirit of the original with fluidity and without sacrificing anything big. But some small details and lesser species that felt like footnotes in the original turn up missing, and those, in truth, were part of the charm. Still, for those who don't have the time to watch all 11 episodes of the BBC series, "Earth" is a nice alternative.