Disney’s Earth Day movie: Is nature Disneyfied?

April 23rd, 2009 - 11:22 am ICT by IANS  

By Andy Goldberg
Los Angeles, April 23 (DPA) Walt Disney Co have released a new nature documentary in a move designed to mark Earth Day and recall the company’s pioneering efforts to bring wildlife movies to the masses from the 1940s onwards with its True-Life Adventure films.

But while critics and moviegoers are in awe of the movie’s images, many also object to the “Disneyfication” of nature, the anthropomorphic narration of much of the film and the reluctance to explicitly name global warming as the greatest danger facing the planet.

The movie, entitled simply “Earth”, and released to coincide with Earth Day Wednesday, follows the fortunes of three animal families - a mother polar bear and her cubs in the Arctic, a family of elephants on the edges of the Kalahari desert and a humpback whale and her calf as they undertake a 6,500-km migration.

The film is directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, shot by some 60 cameramen and narrated by James Earl Jones.

Disney has promised to plant a tree for every box office ticket sold in the first week of release.

Critics are greeting the new film with an enthusiasm rarely seen for a kids’ movie.

“It shouldn’t be missed,” raved the Los Angeles Times’ usually high brow critic. “What it does well is so remarkable that by the time the credits roll you likely won’t want it to end.”

The film often seems more Richard Attenborough than Walt Disney, with its spectacular and riveting footage of the struggle to survive faced by every living species.

It might also seem familiar for other reasons - much of the footage has already been seen in the award-winning BBC series Planet Earth, though viewers of that DVD will surely appreciate the chance to catch the glory of the wild in a full screen cinematic experience.

They may wish they could turn down the sound however - just so that they don’t have to hear Earl Jones describe baby elephants as being on “their first road trip with the family”.

He also talks about a preening bird of paradise as “cleaning up for the big date tonight” and compliments obedient polar bear cubs by comparing them to “human beings who don’t always listen to their moms”.

The images make up for it though. Thanks to infrared photography viewers see a pride of 30 lions in a nighttime attack on an elephant and other circle of life themes.

The audience also sees a giant polar bear flounder as the ice crumbles beneath his feet - a reference to the fact that the greatest danger these animals comes from humans and the planet-warping effects of global warming. Viewers can only watch with sadness as the exhausted bear eventually makes it to solid ground, too exhausted to hunt the walrus he needs to survive.

But the movie is so committed to its feelgood factor that it fails to make explicit reference to the responsibility of the human species for the demise of so many animals. It also cuts away whenever an animal completes a kill.

“This is nature defanged and de-clawed for kiddie consumption,” noted Jeannette Catsoulis in The New York Times.

“`Earth’ records the expanding deserts and shrinking rainfalls with well-meaning diligence but without explanation. The plight of the thirsty African elephants and starving humpbacked whales seems as removed from human action as a solar eclipse,” she said. “As a result, you may leave the theatre feeling as fuzzy - and ultimately as powerless - as those doomed polar bears.”

Maybe it is that sense of powerlessness that the movie intends to evoke. All the scientific explanations in the world would not matter a hoot if people didn’t care about their impact.

And by getting our youngest citizens to see in a new light the lives and struggles of creatures around the planet, the movie surely takes an important step in fostering environmental awareness.

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