For a generation too young to remember National Geographic specials and Disney's "True-Life Adventures," the documentary "Earth" should be an exciting journey through our natural world.
For those of us who do remember such nature films, it's a welcome return trip around the planet.
Directors Alistair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, who spearheaded the massive BBC/Discovery Channel miniseries "Planet Earth," shot the footage for this Disney-released doc at the same time as the TV series. The main difference is one of scale, as the filmmakers find images simply too big and detailed for home viewing. For example, there's one glorious aerial view of a flock of geese, maybe a dozen or so -- until the camera pulls back and you see that it's hundreds, and then thousands, of white specks moving through the air.
The film is organized into a narrative of sorts, following the path of the sun and how the tilt of the earth gives us the seasons. Those seasons are quite pronounced above the Arctic Circle and in the waters around Antarctica, where the sun never sets in the summer and disappears altogether in the winter.
In the Arctic, the film follows a family of polar bears -- a mother tending to two cubs, while the father desperately hunts for seals on the shrinking ice shelf. In the ocean, a humpback whale and its calf swim thousands of miles toward the rich feeding grounds near Antarctica. Meanwhile, in the heat of Africa's Kalahari desert, a mother elephant protects her calf from heat and prowling lions as their herd migrates toward the rich waters of the Okavango Delta region.
Augmenting these three main stories, of mother animals raising their children, are moments of beauty and natural drama: A cheetah rounding the turn to catch a gazelle, mandarin ducklings falling from the nest for the first time, iridescent birds of paradise seeking mates, flowers growing in stunning time-lapse, and more. (Note to parents: In scenes like the gazelle hunt, the film cuts away before nature gets too "red in tooth and claw," as Tennyson wrote.)
The score, by George Fenton ("Gandhi," "The Fisher King"), complements the footage without overwhelming it. The narration -- written by Leslie Megahey and intoned by James Earl Jones -- rarely falls into the trap of anthropomorphizing these animals' lives, and only occasionally telegraphs the movie's message that these creatures and their habitats are threatened by global climate change. It's a message that doesn't need too much underlining, particularly when you see the polar bear's plight, struggling to survive in a rapidly changing icescape.
The makers of the "Planet Earth" miniseries saved some footage that's too big for TV.
Where » Theaters everywhere.
When » Opens Wednesday.
Rating » G.
Running time » 90 minutes