Disney’s True Life Adventures introduced many children to the anthropomorphized wonders of the animal kingdom, but their time has long passed; they’ve been eclipsed by 40-minute IMAX spectacles and documentaries on the Discovery and Nature channels. Beyond that, there’s also the complicated political dilemma of acknowledging global warming and deforestation without scotching the warm-and-fuzzy tone or offending the flat-earth crowd. All of which leaves Earth, a 90-minute pictorial homage to the circle of life, in an awkward spot, even before the separate issue of it being slapped together from BBC/Discovery’s Planet Earth series. (Now with 80 percent new footage!)
With those caveats in mind, Earth succeeds well enough as spectacle. The producers invested $40 million in magnificent aerials of the Arctic, the Himalayas, the Kalahari, and the intimate journeys of various species around the globe. Set to the inevitable narration of James Earl Jones, the film features vignettes from the animal kingdom around broader stories about the migratory habits of polar bears, African elephants, and humpback whales. Some of the footage is shamelessly adorable: polar-bear cubs peeking out of the snow for the first time, wave after wave of chirping chicks learning to fly, the bizarre mating dance of a bird of paradise. But Earth doesn’t shy from the cruelties of nature, either; kids may burst into tears as predators take down caribou calves and baby elephants, but they should know that death is part of the circle of life, too.
On the nature-documentary continuum, Earth falls closer to the cuddly anthropomorphism of March Of The Penguins than the cold rationality of Grizzly Man; when Jones, referencing the humpbacks, talks about shallow water being “a great place to raise kids,” Werner Herzog’s head is exploding somewhere. There’s also some dishonesty to the sunny proposition that after global warming tragically alters a polar bear’s mission to find food, his two cubs will somehow succeed where he failed. But these are the sorts of tough, contradictory balances Earth has to strike, and there’s no shame in revealing the sheer majesty of the planet to a generation tasked with saving it. Someday maybe they, too, can give us a tacked-on happy ending.