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Middling earth

Too much talk spoils the images
By PETER KEOUGH  |  April 21, 2009
2.5 2.5 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Earth

Earth | Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield | Written by Fothergill, Linfield, and Leslie Megahey | Narrated by James Earl Jones | DisneyNature Films | 90 minutes
At times, the images in Alastair Fothergill & Mark Linfield's documentary adapted from the BBC nature series of the same name elicit that rare cinematic response: wonder. At others, I wondered whether James Earl Jones was ever going to shut up. Not only does he offer "insights" already known to everyone in the G-rated audience who's not in diapers, but his basso prattle indulges in misleading anthropomorphisms. Every endangered beast profiled is a mother or father or daughter or son, a non-animated animal character engaged in the ongoing "circle of life" we're familiar with from The Lion King.

Through all this persiflage, earth dazzles with its revelatory photography (most of it culled from the TV series) and inspired editing. A shot of the sun is matched by a huge dark disk that disintegrates into thousands of migrating birds; sensuous folds of desert dunes are paralleled by gleaming snow drifts in the Antarctic. Aerial shots of passing herds resemble corpuscles in giant veins. Shot from even farther out, to give us the big picture, summer warms the boreal timberline, turning the upper arc of the globe an uncanny green. And who would begrudge a little anthropomorphism when a troupe of baboons sashay their way through a flooded plain displaying all-too-human gestures of fussy discomfort?

At first, it seems this visually intelligent design might take precedence over the obtuse verbal narration in structuring the film. Like Jacques Perrin's Winged Migration, earth seems to be following a seasonal and geographical pattern, starting in winter at the North Pole and progressing through the seasons as it heads south. The film begins in the Arctic as winter turns to spring with ma polar bear and her two cubs emerging from hibernation while "dad" hangs out at the edge of the sea ice fending for himself. Next comes an elephant mother and her little one trekking with the herd through the desolation of the Kalahari in search of a water hole; that's followed by a mother and son humpback whale heading for the Antarctic in search of krill. (Why does no one care about the krill? Have they no families?) But then we're back in the Arctic in winter (or is it later?), with dad still having a tough time of it, and you realize that consistency is not a priority for these filmmakers.

Neither, it would seem, is accuracy: the whales are menaced by a great white shark, which is indigenous to oceans thousands of miles away, and the rivers of Africa are illustrated by a waterfall in South America. I started wondering whether that polar bear is indeed the father of those two cubs. Or whether the six-plumed bird of paradise really is "tidying up" his living quarters for a hot date.

The film does show some grim realities: every time a sequence is introduced by that aerial shot of the herd, you'll have to brace yourself for a slow-motion chase and take-down of some Bambi-eyed innocent. And I admire the way at the end the filmmakers transfer your sympathy from the prey to the hard-luck starving predator (the polar-bear dad again). But then that Darth Vader voice intones more platitudes, pounding home the illusion that the wild kingdom is just a mirror of the middle-class family of man, and that the Earth is just another Disney movie.

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