Film Brief - Earth takes a spectacular look at the circle of life

A polar bear treading water — the ice floes having melted out from under him — has become the poster boy of the movement against global climate change. The documentary Earth features a poignant extended sequence involving a polar bear “dad” in precisely such a plight. He's been driven to extreme measures to find food because global warming, the film suggests, has wreaked havoc on his habitat. Bereft polar bears may be more effective at melting audience’s hearts than former Vice President and global warming opponent Al Gore.??Climate change provides a recurring theme in Earth, but the slick, spectacular documentary is no environmental screed. Based on the documentary TV series “Planet Earth,” the film primarily drinks in the splendors of Earth’s unspoiled landscapes and follows the exploits of various adorable animals. Earth conveys the environment's preciousness and fragility without preaching to its viewers.??Globe-trotting directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield present sequences at both poles, Africa, the South American rain forest and in the ocean. They primarily follow mammals — especially the ones with cute calves, cubs or pups — allowing for easy audience identification. In one of the subplots, a whale mother and offspring migrate across half an ocean to feed on krill in the Antarctic. How the whale hunt provides an interesting detail, accompanied by triumphant music, but it’s probably not so great for the krill. (Screw the krill!) ??Earth’s predator sequences may qualify as some of 2009’s best cinematic action scenes, including a series of aerial shots as a wolf tries to run down a fleet caribou calf. Nighttime footage shows a pride of lions besieging a herd of elephants and may prove too harrowing for little kids, despite the lack of blood and the film’s G rating. You may never swim in the ocean again after seeing the slow-motion footage of a great white shark leaping entirely out of the water to gulp down a seal. ??Earth follows in the tradition of Disney’s Oscar-winning True Life Adventures shorts, which feature copious narration. In Earth, it can be a little too cloying. When narrator James Earl Jones describes the mating habits of rain forest birds, you actually get to hear him say “Get down, baby!” over boot-knockin’ soul music. Jones (the voice of The Lion King’s father, you’ll recall), also gets to mention the circle of life when a cheetah catches its prey, and it’s not nearly as adorable as the Elton John song.
Where March of the Penguins found considerable narrative momentum by focusing on one intriguing animal, Earth cuts back and forth without a similarly strong thread, and can have dull stretches. Sequence by sequence, however, the film features amazing shots, including some how’d-they-do-that time-lapse effects that show forests transform from spring buds to fall colors in seconds. Earth offers such a lavish showcase of nature that, with luck, it’ll inspire movie-goers to get out, enjoy and conserve the real thing.