Over the past few years, nature documentaries have taken off in the mainstream. As technology continues to grow, so does our ability to visit places never thought possible before, allowing us to get so close, so intimate with some of the most dangerous creatures in the world. This has all come together in recent years to give us the absolutely ground-breaking likes of Planet Earth or March of the Penguins, documentaries that not only welcomed us to a new way of seeing the world, but showcased brilliant story-telling and breath-taking imagery. And now, as these nature-themed documentaries continue to remain front and center, tied to many present-day global worries, Disney has stepped into the ring with their effort – Earth.
The first film in the Disneynature series, Earth, narrated by James Earl Jones, tells the remarkable story of three animal families and their amazing journey across the planet we all call home. Earth combines rare action, unimaginable scale and impossible locations by capturing the most intimate moments of our planet’s wildest and most elusive creatures. Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, the acclaimed creative team behind the Emmy Award-winning Planet Earth, combine forces again to bring this epic adventure to the big screen that Pete Hammond of Hollywood.com calls “better than March of the Penguins!”
When a movie comes coupled with praise from critic Pete Hammond, that’s reason enough to fear the worst. I find that every movie that comes splashed with good word of mouth from Hammond tends of be of underwhelming quality. It’s not that he has bad taste, mind you (but maybe he does), it’s just that I tend to find his praise questionable at times (then again, the same can easily be said of me), and I usually end up disappointed with whatever movie his praise is so prominently featured on. Thankfully, Earth manages to escape that dreaded Hammond curse. Presented by the new DisneyNature label, Earth is an enjoyable and stunning movie that, even though it treads ground seen before, still manages to hold attention.
Now, when I say “it treads ground we’ve seen before,” I mean that in two separate ways. The first is the fact that we’ve seen these nature film scenarios countless times, with majestic animals struggling to live in a changing world. Still, as many times as we’ve seen this play out, it still usually manages to be an engrossing tale, and that’s no different here. But this is where the second “we’ve seen before” comes in. Earth is essentially a 90 minute version of the famed Planet Earth mini-series, using a mix of used and never-before-aired footage to create this new feature. Disappointing? Somewhat, but it still works here, even for those who gorged on Planet Earth (like myself). Plus, it actually serves as a great introduction for those new to the nature documentary genre.
Earth strips away a good 90% of the original Planet Earth, series, leaving the meat-and-bones of three stories which share the same basic narrative. As we follow a polar bear and her cubs, an African elephant herd, and a whale and her calf, we see each face an assortment challenges, ranging from surviving day-to-day events to extreme circumstances. Some of the more graphic aspects aren’t featured in this release, but that doesn’t mean the movie shies away from it. There’s always a sense of danger that seems to loom about here, with the film knowing when to ratchet up the intensity and when dial it back. It’s pretty effective and aids in making the feature appropriate for the whole family. That’s not to say that Planet Earth was graphic or overly violent, but where that amazing documentary series didn’t shy away from the darker aspects of life, Earth turns away, but not completely. Still, it’s all handled in a respectful manner and never once feels like the movie is holding back. All edits are done effectively, usually adding to the story or moment without taking anything away.
The movie is held together with the strong voice over work of James Earl Jones, providing an authoritative and even comforting feeling too the movie. Narration is crucial to these documentary features, and Earth manages to create to weave a simple story while allowing both the narrator and the animals themselves to give this film the personality and characteristics it needs to keep us entertained. Not only that, but like Planet Earth, you’ll find yourself caring about the animals in focus. It’s becomes an incredibly personal tale that, while fleshed out more in the original Planet Earth, still remains intact here. The particular use of footage here is well-handled. If you’ve never seen Planet Earth, this is a great primer, because it stays true to that great original mini-series, but if you have seen it, you won’t feel insulted by what we get here.
Whether you’ve seen Planet Earth or not, I’d Highly Recommend giving Earth a spin. While I initially felt cheated by the movie just being essentially culled from the Planet Earth series, feelings that quickly subsided as I got lost into the story, I still found it to be a stirring piece of documentary narrative. We follow familair stories here, yes, but the amazing cinematography, solid narration, and gripping story elevate everything. Those fearing that Pete Hammond praise need not worry, Earth is a quality product. While I wouldn’t call it the “…breathtaking motion picture achievement” he boasts on the back cover of the Earth Blu-ray release, I would call it a documentary that’s definitely worth seeing (especially on Blu-ray). The visuals will grab you, the narrative will hold you, and the animals themselves will keep you to the final frame.
Disney has given Earth a solid Blu-ray release, coming packaged with an additional copy of the film on Blu-ray. Housed in a traditional Elite Blu-ray case, snuggled in reflective foil cardboard slipcase. It’s a sharp looking release that’ll bounce off the shelves, no question.
Looking inside, it should come at no surprise that how utterly gorgeous this movie looks. Matching the impressive Blu-ray release of Planet Earth, Earth looks just as stunning. The definition is jaw-dropping at times, whether it’s a close-up of a single animal or a long-shot of a herd, the clarity is something to behold. If you’ve seen Planet Earth then you know what to expect here to be honest. There are moments of grain or noise, but that’s the result of the film stock or special filters used by the filming crew, and is usually only temporary at best. Some other transfer problems, like the occasional artifacting and colorbanding, do rear up on occasion, it’s usually only a momentary lapse lasting mere seconds, if that. It still looks fantastic, overall, and same can thankfully be said about the audio transfer. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a great effort, one that really gives the movie a great boost, adding to the overall atmosphere of it. While Jones’ narration may be front and center, usually overpowering any other audio elements that may be popping up at the time, I found it to be a well-balanced mix that balances everything in near perfect harmony.
Moving to special features, Disney has given Earth a nice batch of supplemental features. Those familiar with other nature documentary releases will definitely be in tune with what we can expect here. First up on the extras list is actually the main menu itself. Users can navigate around the globe featured on the main menu and select from a series of factoids and video information. It’s not extensive content, mostly trivia and fact-based, but still an ingenious inclusion on Disney’s part. Up next is “Filmmaker Annotations,” a picture-in-picture track featuring commentary and trivia tracks from the creators behind the movies, providing an interesting look at the grueling process of filming for this documentary. It definitely paints a fascinating picture of just how this documentary came together. Rounding out the Blu-ray special features is “Earth Diaries,” the typical, but entertaining, “making of” bonus feature covering the effort of the BBC crew to obtain footage. Overall, Disney has provided a nice selection of bonus content that nicely supplements the main feature.
This release also comes packaged with a DVD edition of Earth.
Appropriate for all ages, and thoroughly engrossing, Earth reminds us that we live on an utterly amazing planet, one with so many stories to tell. With excellent video and audio transfers and a nice selection of bonus material, the Blu-ray release of Earth is an easy title to Recommend, that’s for sure. An abridged version of the epic Planet Earth, Earth manages to hit all the right notes during its 90 minute run time. While it does shy away from some of the more graphic and intense moments, the dark side of nature still looms throughout this documentary, always nipping at the three main animal families featured, but never overbearingly so. It’s a great introduction for those new to the nature documentary genre, one that I imagine will leave them hungry for more.
Earth is now available to own on DVD and Blu-ray.