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Disneynature: Wings of Life Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack Review

Wings of Life (2013) Blu-ray + DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Wings of Life

Video Premiere: April 16, 2013 / Running Time: 81 Minutes / Rating: G

Story/Director: Louie Schwartzberg / Producers: Alix Tidmarsh, Louie Schwartzberg

Narrator: Meryl Streep

1.85:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English); Both: Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish; DVD Closed Captioned
Two single-sided discs (BD-25 & DVD-9) / Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99 / Also available on Amazon Instant Video

Buy Wings of Life from Amazon: Blu-ray + DVD • Instant Video

After four consecutive years of launching unorthodox, reasonably wide theatrical releases around Earth Day, Disneynature appeared to be taking 2013 off. In fact, the line of family-friendly, PR-friendly nature documentaries continues with Wings of Life,
a film that goes straight to Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack on Tuesday, six days before Earth Day. Forgoing theatrical release seemed inevitable for this series based on the "go big or go home video" thinking currently in place at Disney. But you haven't yet seen the last of Disneynature in theaters; Bears is scheduled to open on April 18, 2014.

Since it's clearly not part of a new game plan, the decision to skip a theatrical run for Wings of Life raises the question "Why?" The answer to that is not star power; Wings is narrated by beloved screen icon Meryl Streep, as big of a name as any Disneynature has nabbed to date, not that distribution or attendance weighs heavily on that. The more likely culprit, then, is subject matter. Wings focuses not only on the birds the title suggests but also bugs, bats, and, most of all, flowers. People love butterflies, but can they invest in, relate to, and anthropomorphize them, bees and the like on a large screen for 80 minutes in the way that they have done for polar bears, elephants, lions, and chimpanzees? Maybe, maybe not.

Wings of Life is written, directed, and produced by Louie Schwartzberg, a longtime visual effects man who made his feature directing debut on America's Heart and Soul. If you remember that 2004 Disney documentary (and I doubt that you do), it might be for its limited release flopping and critical thrashing mere days after Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, a documentary Disney refused to let its Miramax Films arm distribute, was given a voracious reception by critics and moviegoers. In the nine years since, Schwartzberg has made a number of documentaries for television and video, including the 6-minute short Origins for the Blu-ray release of Disney's Dinosaur.

Scent oils attract orchid bees, which then get stuck carrying pollen sacs on their backs. The transformation from caterpillar to butterfly gives Disneynature's "Wings of Life" one of its most captivating moments.

Schwartzberg immediately proves himself plenty qualified to contribute to Disneynature.
He brings technical expertise and evident interest to the subject of pollination, the unlikely chief focus of this film. Streep narrates in the first person as a flower, the undisputed hero despite the title. It's fair to assert that flowers are photogenic, not cinematic. Relying heavily on Streep's omnipresent prose, time-lapse photography (a technique on which the director got his start), super-slow motion, and unbelievably intimate footage, Schwartzberg manages to prove otherwise. As boring as a movie about pollination sounds, this one shows that any science when dissected in a compelling manner is bound to fascinate.

Streep puts flowers into context for us, having us think back to the age of reptiles 200 million years ago when there were no mammals larger than a mouse and no flowers. Now they're everywhere and one of life's many miracles we take for granted. Wings encourages us to appreciate flowers not only for their beauty but the life they sustain.

We get a number of salient and memorable examples of that. In the desert of Northern Mexico, cacti function as living water tanks. Their flowers open for a single night, are pollinated, and turn to fruit on which pregnant and nursing female bats feast. In the colorful rainforest, orchid bees are drawn to flowers' scent oils and wind up with pollen sacs unknowingly stuck on their backs. There's also the tomato flower with its buzz pollination by vibrating bumblebee. And in the example that may hit closest to home, farm fields of the American Midwest hold toxic milkweed that lures in monarch butterflies and fuels their short life cycle.

While Wings may lack the holding power of movies like March of the Penguins or Chimpanzee, it is sure to raise viewers' interest and appreciation in subject matter they will likely resist. If the film stumbles at all, it's at the end, when it feels obligated to get cautionary and speculate on how the inexplicable disappearance of the all-important honey bee might reflect pollution, deforestation, community developments, and farming practices. The film then proceeds to alternate between environmental instructions for responsible planting and end credits. The play for real life relevance, following a more fitting and inevitable ode to humans' ceremonial uses of flowers, is forgivable, since non-narrative documentaries do not have logical ends.

This film was released theatrically in France back in March 2011 with the more honest title of Pollen.

Got cactus nectar? This Mexican bat will in about a second.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Even if you're not enthralled with Wings of Life's subject matter, you should find its visuals dazzling and maybe just a tad icky. Schwartzberg and his crew capture bee, butterfly, bat and flower action in amazing clarity. From the rainforest to the desert, the film is full of bold, striking images that look flawless on Blu-ray. Not even in scenes of countless butterflies in motion do we find an artifact or imperfection. The 1.85:1 video is absolutely demo quality.

The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio is stunning as well. Streep's narration assumes a wider, more commanding presence than you would expect. It is nicely mixed with a fitting score by ambient Danish duo Bliss and obviously appropriate sounds of nature. French and Spanish dubs are included, with Mιlanie Laurent and Mexico's Andrea Cotto assuming narrator duties. Even if in sampling the DVD appears to be without problems, a film relying as heavily on sensory stimulation does demand the higher quality of Blu-ray, which might explain why Disney isn't even bother releasing the DVD on its own.

Don't worry kids, Disneynature will return to theaters next spring with the April 2014 release of "Bears." A Meryl Steep flower opens up on the DVD menu for Disneynature's "Wings of Life."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Each of the discs opens with a general Disneynature promo (2:41) that comes to preview 2014's Bears. That is the only item billed as a bonus feature on the menus, which is unusual both because nature documentaries lend themselves to behind-the-scenes looks
(for instance, how the heck did they manage to capture nocturnal bats so clearly?) and because Disneynature films have typically come equipped with some decent supplemental material, like filmmaker annotations. It's not as if the lesser effort shown here has yielded a lower price tag than the standard $39.99 SRP attached to a new Disney film's digital copy-less combo pack. Among that class, it'd be tough to find a set as light as this one's.

The animated menu shows off some of the film's more powerful time-lapse and up-close photography to a score excerpt.

Disney apparently isn't bothering with a DVD packaging option on this combo pack. The side-snapped blue keepcase holds a Disney Movie Rewards code insert and is topped by an embossed cardboard slipcover.

If you want to see a whole bunch of monarch butterflies like these, you'll want to plant some milkweed.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Getting sent straight to video does not make Wings of Life a lesser Disneynature effort. Louie Schwartzberg's documentary is full of the spectacular sights and sounds you expect of this line, only its subject matter isn't as sure to grab your attention and doesn't lend to the narrative dramatization of past releases. While your interest may flag at times, the film seems to mine the material for all its worth and regularly captivates with its remarkably close views of nature.

Disney's Blu-ray combo pack is a lesser Disneynature effort as far as supplements, but the feature presentation is as delightful as can be. The film warrants at least a rental for anyone fond of the brand or even just the genre.

Buy Wings of Life from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD / Instant Video

Buy from Amazon.com

Related Reviews:
New: To the Arctic • Magic Journey to Africa • Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away • A Monster in Paris • Lincoln
Disneynature: Chimpanzee • African Cats • The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos • Oceans • Earth
Directed by Louis Schwartzberg: America's Heart and Soul | Meryl Streep: Fantastic Mr. Fox • Marvin's Room • Julie & Julia • Doubt
Bee Movie • A Bug's Life • Arachnophobia • James and the Giant Peach • Rango • Ghosts of the Abyss • Born to Be Wild

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Reviewed April 11, 2013.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2013 Disneynature and Buena Vista Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.