Disney doesn't often make a movie little kids shouldn't see. But "Earth," the nature film premiering on Earth Day April 22, falls into that category.
Despite its "G" rating, the film is more suspenseful than a James Bond movie — and more stressful, too. As it follows three animal families through a year of their life, tension reigns: will they live, or die?
It is not easy going for any of the animals: two adult polar bears and their baby cubs; a baby elephant and its mother; a young humpback whale and its mother. All face the treachery of Nature as they search for food and water.
The whales need to beware the potential attack of a great white shark as they migrate from the tropics to Antarctica in search of krill. Though the shark never attacks them, the footage of a Great White jumping 32 feet into the air as it devours a seal is absolutely spine-tingling. On screen, the Great White seems as big as a T-Rex. Clearly, in the ocean, it is just as deadly.
The gorgeous blue waters the whales ply contrast starkly with the ghostly, parched African desert the elephants must cross to reach drinking water in the Okavango delta. The baby and its mother manage to dodge the hungry jaws of a pride of starving lions – but one of their companions is not so lucky. At several points during their arduous journey, the little one, blinded by dust storms and weary from lack of food, appears on the verge of collapse. An aerial shot of the spreading desert and the shrinking Okavango leaves the disturbing impression that, even if the elephants make it this time, they may not be so lucky in the future.
The polar bear cubs couldn't be cuter as they emerge from their den to a snow day every child can relate to. But miles away, their father struggles to find food. Polar bears use ocean ice as "hunting platforms" to snag seals. But as climate change melts ice faster, it is becoming harder and harder for the bears to find food. Papa bear eventually must take to land to avoid drowning. His desperate attempt to kill a walrus backfires as the walrus spears him with his tusk.
The cinematography is breathtaking, especially the shots of thousands of birds in flight. The filmmakers worked from hot air balloons and helicopters fitted with specially-made stabilized cameras to capture their subjects as they exist in the wild. One of the side stories in the film shows baby mandarin ducks emerging from the hole in a tree high above the ground that served as their nest. Each one tests its tiny wings in the same way: it leaps into the air, flaps a few times, and falls soundly to the ground – fortunately into a cushioning pile of leaves. It's absolutely adorable.
The film leaves no doubt about the beauty and value of Nature. But it makes almost no mention of the threats the natural world faces due to pollution or toxic chemicals, beyond some slight, passing references to climate change as the polar ice melts and as the desert spreads. This seems like a lost opportunity. The survival of all the animals featured in "Earth" is in question due to the impact people are having on the planet. The filmmakers made a beautiful movie – but they could have made an important one if they'd included information on how the audience affects the lives of the subjects on screen — and what they can do to make a difference.