Imagine spending a year of your life committed to doing just one thing: filming nature. Sounds like a daunting task, doesn’t it? Maybe even a little dull. That’s why you need to experience Earth, one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. Trust me. Your mind will be blown.
A collaboration between The Discovery Channel, The BBC and Walt Disney, the filmmakers spent 12 months following the journeys of various animals in numerous climates and terrains. It wasn’t easy. They shot in remote places like the Arctic (where even the summer feels like winter), the dry lands of Africa (including the Kalahari Desert), the lush, colourful rainforests in the Tropics and even underwater in the cavernous oceans. If it wasn’t terribly frigid, it was hot and rainy. If some animals were shy and indifferent, others were territorial. And then there were unexpected technical challenges like trying to shoot from a makeshift hot air balloon without hitting a tree. (Watch the closing credits to see how difficult it really is.)
Narrated by the great James Earl Jones, this rapturous film seamlessly shifts back and forth from story to story as we go from being charmed by a separated family of polar bears to rooting on each of the following: a group of determined birds trying to conquer the cold, freakishly strong winds of a famous mountain range in order to find warm paradise on the other side; a pack of elephants slowly migrating for fresher water and a couple of humpback whales swimming practically half way around the world towards the same goal, all in just 90 minutes.
Let’s put this in perspective. You need water, you turn on a tap or buy it from the store. They need water, they have to relocate, a process that can take weeks or even months and without any guarantee of success. You think your life is hard? Be glad you’re not an elephant.
With occasional flashes of delightful wit and a permanent sense of awe, Earth is really a love story between viewer and nature. How can one not be delighted by the sight of little baby birds attempting their first flights out of a very tall tree only to “fall with style”? Or that hilarious bird of paradise who fusses over a potential mate who rejects him despite his incredibly nifty mating dance? Or those charming penguins and adorable baby polar bears thoroughly enjoying their icy, snowy environments?
Lest you think I succumb rather easily to cute-as-pie animals (or possible off-camera manipulation which, considering the circumstances here, would be incredibly hard to pull off without detection), Earth is more than just a visual delight. It’s highly educational, as well. No matter how young or old you are, you will learn some fascinating things about our home planet, not all of which are terribly positive, either. The film very much confirms that climate change is an ongoing environmental disaster, one that is gradually threatening the traditional lifestyles of our animal friends, and in turn, us.
Take the father polar bear who is never seen with his mate or their two young kids. His only plan is to find food for himself on melting ice plateaus in the Arctic spring. Unfortunately, thanks to the effects of global warming, these plateaus melt faster and faster every year and because he’s a rather large animal, he can’t stay on one too long because he could fall through and drown. The ice is just too thin and the water is too goddamn cold. As we check back in with him throughout the movie, we find him growing ever more desperate resorting in the end to attempting to nab a hopefully vulnerable baby walrus amongst a large number of very unfriendly and supremely protective adults. His story is a sobering reminder that in an ever changing world, survival of the fittest is still one of the only rules that matters in the animal kingdom. That, and eat or be eaten. (Wait, aren’t they the same thing? Oh, never mind.)
Because Earth is targeted at kids, scary stuff like predators successfully making a kill is limited purely to the chase and capture (or escape, in some cases) but never the feast. It’s fascinating to find yourself rooting for a baby animal to avoid an untimely death while at the same time completely understanding why that cheetah or that pride of lions are hounding them in the first place. If the stronger animal doesn’t succeed this time and continues to struggle as a hunter, it, too, will die. Maybe Morrissey should have a word with them. Then again, alternate means of feeding are few and far between.
One of the coolest things about this movie is the editing. To see that aforementioned cheetah make his move in super slow motion (because you miss key details watching it in real time (too fast) as noted in the end credits), ditto the falling baby birds, or the seasons change in various parts of the world in rapid succession is astonishing. How the editors didn’t receive an Oscar nomination is a mystery.
How the film was snubbed for recognition in the Best Documentary Feature is equally puzzling. In an era where it’s so hard to find quality family films that don’t pander to kids and insult the intelligence of adults, here’s one that does neither. Instead, with its utterly breathtaking cinematography, smooth, informative narration and utterly beguiling subjects, it’s likely to launch a whole new generation of environmentalists. God knows we need more of them.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, July 12, 2013