It’s fundamental, cycle-of-life stuff that happens all day, every day, year-round, worldwide.
Seasons change. Animals give birth and die. They migrate to find food. Some are hunters, some are hunted. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly — sunrise, sunset.
But all these basic, familiar occurrences are photographed and edited with such striking scope, clarity and ingenuity in the documentary “Earth,” you’ll feel as if you’re learning about them for the first time. And for the children who are the targets of much of this material, “Earth” offers colorful entertainment with, thankfully, a not-too-heavy-handed message about the perils of climate change.
The debut from the Disneynature label, directed by Brits Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, follows three species of mothers and babies over a year — polar bears in the Arctic, elephants in Africa’s Kalahari Desert and humpback whales near the Equator — with a variety of wondrous creatures mixed in between. Narrator James Earl Jones provides the necessary gravitas to accompany these majestic images, and the score composed by George Fenton and performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is appropriately sweeping and grand.
Many of the aerial shots — of sand dunes and waterfalls, of caribou traveling across the tundra or birds taking flight against a bold sunset — will take your breath away. Yet the more intimate images will make you wonder, how’d they do that? (Some behind-the-scenes footage accompanies the closing credits, so stick around, but there could have been another entire documentary devoted to the filmmakers’ struggles and achievements. Hopefully that’ll appear on the DVD.)
A great example comes early, when a mother polar bear emerges from her den followed by her two cubs, who are seeing the outside world for the first time. With their furry paws and curious snoots, they stumble as the take their first hesitant steps on the silent snow. Irresistibly cute — until Jones informs us that it’s likely one of these little guys won’t be alive in a year because warmer temperatures have made it harder for them to find nourishment.
Yes, “Earth” can be as harrowing as it is beautiful, in the classic Disney tradition of frightening us with stories of animals in danger. One impossibly long tracking shot follows a caribou calf that gets separated from the pack and ends up being chased by a ravenous wolf. On and on it goes, across vast expanses and up and down hills. We won’t tell you how it ends, but suffice it to say it’s thrilling.
At the same time, some of the most gorgeous scenes are also the simplest. Time-lapse photography reveals an entire year of season changes over a matter of seconds. Exotic birds of paradise in unreal colors strut their stuff.
It’s all rapturous and amusing and enlightening enough without voiceover adding unnecessary anthropomorphism to the animals’ activities. As the young polar bears — now grown — forage on their own at the film’s end, Jones intones: “Their father’s brave spirit will always live on in their hearts.” Really? How do we know? The technique gets a little cloying — and, if you really want to be uptight, it seems arrogant — although, understandably, it’s intended to make the movie’s lessons more accessible for little ones.
That’s a minor complaint, though, about a film that otherwise has a major visual and emotional impact.