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Jaffa views the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through the lens of young love. —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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I grew up loving nature documentaries, but the adult cynic in me makes me question the value and honesty of such films. The bad ones are unrelated segments thrown together under a Barnum-esque narration. The very worst ones use captive animals to illustrate “nature” (Remember the lemmings!).

Just the sort of movie you'd use to show off your Blu-ray player
Just the sort of movie you’d use to show off your Blu-ray player

So I had low expectations for the first film released under the new DisneyNature label, Earth (or rather, “earth” — the lowercase ‘e’ conveying Disney’s humility in the face of Nature). And indeed I managed to write down some embarrassingly meaningless quotes from the script. But not ten minutes later I had been won over by the excellent footage, James Earl Jones’ expressive narration, and the competent storytelling.

Expressive Voice

Earth is like some of those old documentaries in that it features unrelated segments edited together. We open with polar bears, we close on whales, and in-between we see cats and birds and ungulates and pachyderms. Earth is a little better in that writers Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield, and Leslie Megahey give some shape to the story. The migrations of the elephants and whales are sliced apart and then spliced back together as a backbone to the film, interspersed with shorter scenes from elsewhere on the planet.

James Earl Jones narrates, and at first I wished for someone more restrained and businesslike. Jones clenches his teeth when a predator attacks, whispers over a stalking cat, and adds a hint of irony when cubs are playing. Combined with the expressive symphonic music, his narration made me think the movie was aiming at kids to such a degree that adults would be left out. But I came to see the expressiveness as merely a stylistic choice. There are still some meaningless phrases in the commentary — “Grass is the great unsung hero of our planet,” and “This creature is the very essence of wilderness” (aren’t they all?). But Jones’ voice conveys what the words don’t, and the occasional joke on the soundtrack gives a “we’re all in this together” feeling that softened my cynicism.

Never-Before-Seen

What really makes Earth worth watching are the handful of scenes I’ve never seen before in any nature documentary. The most powerful was shot using infrared photography at night. A pride of lions shares a watering hole with a herd of elephants during the day, but after dark, the elephants sense danger and start to leave. As they go, the pride makes a bold attack on an elephant, about 30 cats, says the narrator, attack a single elephant — something no one or two cats would dare try.

Another gruesome but powerful scene shows a great white shark jumping bodily out of the ocean, a seal in its jaws. For a moment, the one-ton shark hangs in air, completely out of the water, almost gleeful in its kill.

And there’s an unbelievable mating dance from a bird called the Superb Bird of Paradise. When the bird ruffs its feathers it takes on an oblong ovoid shape, like a stretched-out satellite dish. It’s a black bird, but its “dish” has two turquoise-glowing “eyes” and a long thin turquoise “mouth.” The display is hypnotic and vaguely dangerous, like the unpredictable dance of a medicine man under the power of some drug.

Photo Journalism

Even the mundane footage is excellent, often shot from cranes, balloons, and helicopters. More often than in most nature documentaries, the photography helps tell a story, like the shot that frames a cheetah in the foreground, low on the screen; the camera lifts and pans up to reveal a pack of gazelles in the distance at screen top. The shot feels like a sports movie where the underdog quarterback takes his place at the line of scrimmage.

There are also some introductory scenes that could have just been throwaway establishing shots. Instead, photography and editing combine to produce “year-long” tracking shots, where a camera move such as a dolly or a pan starts in winter and, 5 seconds later, ends in autumn. It’s an elaborate trick that was probably a lot harder to achieve than it looks.

There is still a cynic in me who sees manipulation and hears pandering in the unrelated scenes of cuteness and death. But I also see skill, dedication, and patience behind many of the scenes in this film. So if Disney chooses romanticism over asceticism in its editing and narration, that’s a choice I can live with.

DVD Extras

I found the Blu-ray menus very frustrating. Disney disabled two of my four menu buttons while they tried to show me previews of other Disney films. I had to skip past each one individually, when I really just wanted to jump to the feature. And when I came back to watch the extra features, I had to repeat the process again. And God help you if you accidentally push the root menu button, as you’ll have to try yet again. Don’t push your luck, Disney; treating me as a captive audience in my own home theater costs you a lot of good will.

There is one extra feature on the Blu-ray disc: Earth Diaries: The making of earth the movie. It’s a well-produced 45-minute making-of documentary, mostly told by co-writer/co-director Alastair Fothergill. It shows us what’s behind some of the more impressive shots in the film such as the shark, the lion attack on the elephant, and the polar bears. It shows us the Cineflex camera that made so many of the impressive aerial shots possible. It doesn’t explain everything in the movie, like the bird of paradise, or the year-long tracking shots.

The making-of is interesting, but most of my immediate questions were answered in the outtakes that play over the end credits. We finally see photographers, conspicuously absent from the film footage, as they deal with the crazy requirements of their jobs. One retreats to a snowy hut, followed by a persistent polar bear. Another crashes his balloon into a tree over the savannah. Another beams at having caught the footage of the shark jumping out of the water. That five-minute taste suited me just as well as the 45-minute documentary.

Picture and Sound

This is exactly the sort of movie I’d want to show off my Blu-ray player and HDTV. While the footage isn’t as crisp or perfect as, say, Baraka, the varied natural settings, from forest to tundra, from under water to the heart of the desert provide a great palette for your home theater.

How to Use This DVD

Skip past all the promos as best you can, cursing Disney all the while. When you finally get to the main menu, play the feature, and stick around for the credits. Save the making-of for another time if you’re so inclined.