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Disneynature's Earth DVD & Blu-ray Review

Disneynature's Earth (2009) movie poster - click for larger view Earth

Theatrical Release Date: April 22, 2009 / Running Time: 90 Minutes / Rating: G

Directors: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield / Producers: Alix Tidmarsh, Sophokles Tasioulis / Narrator: James Earl Jones

Tagline: The remarkable story of three families and their amazing journey across the planet we all call Home.

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and Kelvin Cedeno

In HBO's recent Grey Gardens movie, a filmmaker confesses to a potential subject that "The words 'documentary' and 'profit' seldom occur in the same sentence." In 2009, the Walt Disney Company looked to become an exception to that rule, one which only Michael Moore, Al Gore, and the makers of March of the Penguins have managed to defy in standard theaters.

As promised a year earlier, Disney unveiled the Disneynature banner, a line of nature documentaries that for those in the know instantly harked back to Walt Disney's True-Life Adventures, an Academy-decorated series of shorts and features produced from 1948 to 1960. The first Disneynature film released to U.S. cinemas was Earth, which strategically opened on April 22nd, Earth Day 2009.

A polar bear mother and son are the first of three families whose journeys Disneynature's "Earth" documents. A herd of elephants moves steadily across Africa's Kalahari Desert toward their delta destination.

Given an unusually strong and wide marketing campaign plus a PR-friendly promise by Disney to plant one tree in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest for every first week ticket sold, Earth succeeded well beyond the norms of its genre. The film grossed just over $32 million domestically. According to Box Office Mojo's strict definition of "documentary" (which excludes IMAX, concert, reality-TV-spawned, and anthology pictures),
Earth's numbers made it a distant but clear all-time third performer, behind just Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins.

The earnings were especially impressive when you consider the fact that not only was Earth a nature documentary, it was also one that had already existed and been widely enjoyed in a different incarnation. Over the course of nine months in 2006, "Planet Earth" had aired as eleven one-hour episodes on the primary channel of producing party, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The following spring, the series came to America on the Discovery Channel. By the end of 2007, "Planet Earth" was widely available to own on DVD, HD DVD, and Blu-ray, its high-definition photography being a real draw on any format. A refashioned, re-edited 90-minute companion feature film titled Earth was released to European theaters that fall.

That Earth was very similar to the one U.S. moviegoers got this past spring, only with minor editing changes and voiceover god James Earl Jones re-recording narration originally read by Patrick Stewart. The magic of Disney branding and marketing were enough to turn a non-Disney import that largely reworked an epic British television series into a $32 million-grossing picture playing on less than 2,000 movie screens.

Seasons change before our eyes through of the magic of "Earth"'s mobile time-lapse photography effects. Mother and calf humpback whales make a 4,000-mile trek to Antarctic feeding grounds.

Earth claims to spend a year observing wildlife in various remote parts of the globe. We open in the Arctic where two young polar bears and their mother emerge from their den for the first time ever and the first time in months, respectively. This family of four ("Father" is off trying to withstand melting ice and fend off hunger) becomes our first group of identifiable characters in the film. Their ordinary plight is paralleled in many of the stories to come.

In the deserts of Africa, elephants migrate to where watering holes are expected to form. Our attentions are turned to a mother and calf struggling to keep pace with the herd. In a lighter passage, we visit New Guinea rainforest, where a male bird of paradise tries to attract a female with his flashy plumage show. Another segment follows a mother and calf humpback whale as they must make an extremely long journey to feeding grounds.

The appealing parent-child stories carry overtones of March of the Penguins' broadly-playing family drama. As in that film, elements are braved. Here, the threat of dying in another species' teeth seems greater. A massive migration of caribou spawns stampede when an Arctic wolf targets the young. The chase that ensues is the film's most suspenseful sequence and has greater effect than many of scripted cinema's best-crafted human pursuits. Depending on your perspective, it probably doesn't end well, but the film cuts away before anything too gruesome can be seen (helping to secure the G rating). A similar ritual is observed when a cheetah goes after a herd of gazelles. The predation is captured in arresting ultra slow-motion.

Neither previous "circle of life" demonstration disturbs as much as an elephant-lion encounter. By day, the two species tolerate one another sharing a water source. At night, one realizes and utilizes the "strength in numbers" principle to our unsettlement.

Speedy cheetah chases young gazelle at 1,000 frames per second. It's like the circle of life in super slow motion. That wide black and turquoise content face is actually a New Guinea bird of paradise putting on a show for an apparently bothered guest.

While the bloodless kills have the most power, most of Earth is far less savage. Flocks of birds with numbers your eyes can't believe make their seasonal migrations. Baby ducks come leaping down from a tree for the first time. Countless other exotic and familiar species make entertaining cameos, including baboons and penguins.
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The spectacular sights of endless waterfalls and the aurora australis southern lights are witnessed. But in the end, it is the cold realities of nature allowed to play out that stay in mind, not the beauties shown in passing.

When it comes to nature documentaries, all you really need to do is grab enough usable footage. The more put on film, the better your crop's cream will be. But simply recording wild animals in their natural state is enough to sustain viewer interest, whether edited to IMAX's 45-minute standard or, in Earth's case, feature films' hour and a half. The typical moviegoer will appreciate seeing things they're not ordinarily exposed to. Animal buffs may be harder to please, but for all the amazing sights recorded over the years, from National Geographic specials to "Meerkat Manor" episodes, there is still something to be said for watching this kind of thing in a cinema setting.

That's especially true when this kind of thing is done right, as it is in this film that Alistair Fothergill and Mark Linfield have adapted from their BBC series. The visual achievements here are nothing short of stupendous. Especially stunning is the time-lapse photography which unfolds before our eyes naturally and with movement. Are special effects employed or are our planet's natural resources simply this magnetic when captured with the best available equipment?

The northern lights may get more buzz, but the South Pole's aurora australis ain't too shabby either. It may look like a snowfall that's not accumulating but it's actually a flock of countless birds migrating.

Although no narration could compete with the sights seen here, James Earl Jones does a nice job. He's obviously no stranger to this kind of work, having lent his unmistakable vocals to countless documentaries (as well as Darth Vader, CNN studio identifications, and The Lion King's Mufasa). Not only does the 78-year-old actor easily provide the appropriate majesty, he's also able to sell the humor of comical moments. And the film is wise enough to realize a little narration goes a long way, so that we're kept in the clear but not compelled to just drown out the spoken information.

The biggest downfall may be that the slice-of-life approach deprives the movie of being an even more powerful experience. The upside is that if you wish to delve deeper into any of the depicted creatures and landscapes, there still is "Planet Earth" with its ten hours of footage, almost certain to be borrowable from your local library. For others, the 90 minutes spent here will be enough to remember and appreciate all the fascinating world out there that's usually taken for granted.

Buy Disney's Earth Blu-ray/DVD Combo from Amazon.com DVD Details

BD: 1.78:1 Widescreen; DTS-HD 5.1, Dolby 5.1 (French, Spanish)
DVD: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen; Dolby Digital 5.1 (English,
French, Spanish, Mexican Spanish, Argentine Spanish, Portuguese)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish, French,
Portuguese; Closed Captioned; Extra Subtitled
Release Date: September 1, 2009
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (1 BD-50 & 1 DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Blue Keepcase with Sidesnap in Holographic Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in standalone DVD
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Earth's Blu-ray release presents it in 1.78:1, matching the dimensions of "Planet Earth" and closely approximating 1.85:1 theatrical exhibitions. Like the series' high-definition presentations, Earth features a demo quality transfer. Colors are rich yet natural, and the image is consistently detailed.
A night scene exhibits some digital noise, but this is a result of special lighting conditions, not the disc. Other than that, there are absolutely no digital or print defects to be found. This astounding transfer is as close to perfection as anyone could ask for and is a good choice for showing off what Blu-ray is capable of.

The DTS-HD 5.1 surround soundtrack isn't as amazing, but it's still very pleasing. Both the musical score and James Earl Jones' narration are the focus here, and both are spread widely through the soundfield. Effects are more minor than expected and don't utilize the surrounds very much. Still, while it's not necessarily an enveloping experience, the track is mixed cleanly and richly enough to satisfy.

The DVD presentation parallels the Blu-ray's, with the stunning picture making full use of the medium and garnering more notice than the adequate but unaggressive Dolby 5.1 soundtrack marked by convincing animal noises.

Cameraman Simon Smith tries to press his button at the ideal moment for capturing a slow motion shark feast in "Earth Diaries." A giraffe walks across water in a brief scene shown atop the DVD main's menu.


The DVD holds just one bonus feature, but it's a big one. "Earth Diaries" (42:30) answers the "how did they get that?" questions that pop into your head viewing the film.
This documentary gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of the polar bears, the elephants, and other segments. A hungry polar bear repeatedly approaches the filmmakers' camp. The nocturnal lions surround the production vehicle while being shot with infrared lighting. In addition, we see a helicopter brave tough mountain winds and clouds to film the world's biggest waterfall and how high-speed cameras are able to (eventually) capture cheetah and shark hunts at 1,000 frames per second. This apt inclusion nearly rivals the film in entertainment value, with the B-roll showing us how documentarians persist in getting great footage while hiding their challenging efforts.

The Blu-ray release, which includes the DVD but not a digital copy, contains an exclusive special feature on its high-def disc: a track of Filmmaker Annotations. These are pop-up facts about both the production itself and the featured nature subjects. Unfortunately, this BonusView-enabled feature could not be accessed via the player used for this review. As such, neither the depth nor quality of the factoids (nor the presentation that's apparently flashy enough to require BonusView) can be assessed.

After choosing from six language options, trailers run for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Oceans, Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, Disney Blu-ray, and Disney Movie Rewards. The Sneak Peeks menu adds promos for Like Stars on Earth (only on the DVD), Up, Santa Buddies, and Friends for Change.

The DVD's attractive main menu runs a montage in a very wide band across the top while a distant view of the planet's edge fills the rest of the screen. Submenus feature other excerpts of dramatic score but no animation beyond rotational transitions. The Blu-ray's main menu is a simple still image of the earth with three animated markers indicating where the documentary's three main storylines take place. The pop-up menus feature transparent gray boxes that relegate themselves mostly towards the left of the screen. Each selection features a minor digitized sound effect.

The Blu-ray/DVD combo's thin blue case slides into a uniquely holographic cardboard slipcover. A Disney Movie Rewards code and promotional Disney Blu-ray booklet are found inside.

This mandarin baby duck makes a clean landing on his first flight (fall with style) from a tall forest tree. Despite the warm magic hour lighting, there's no happy ending for this father polar bear, who wrestled with the walruses and lost.


If you've already seen the much-heralded "Planet Earth" television series, you may be underwhelmed by Earth, the feature film abridgement that caters to family audiences with March of the Penguins-type anthropomorphized animal family drama. If you haven't seen the BBC series, you are likely to enjoy this spectacularly-photographed documentary of wildlife around the globe. Either way, you ought to give this a look for a film that is probably quite different from what you're used to watching.

Whether you opt for the DVD or, for about $8 more, the Blu-ray/DVD Combo, you get picture quality that's terrific by the medium standards. The lone video bonus feature is all that's needed as apt accompaniment to the feature.

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Related Reviews:
Disneynature: Oceans • The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos • African Cats
Walt Disney's True-Life Adventures: V1 - Wonders of the World • V2 - Lands of Exploration • V3 - Creatures of the Wild • V4 - Nature's Mysteries
From Alastair Fothergill: Deep Blue | Disney Documentaries: Sacred Planet • Aliens of the Deep • Morning Light • Ghosts of the Abyss
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Reviewed September 1, 2009.