Disney Studios pioneered the modern nature doc back in the '50s and '60s, and they continue to dominate, even if this epic, brilliantly crafted and visually exhilarating travelogue is a somewhat sanitized wild kingdom. Oh sure, we get the obligatory slow-mo cheetah vs. gazelle chase, but at the moment of truth the camera pans away, sparing us excess gore. But it's a jungle out there, and this dazzling tour of troubled ecosystems around the world doesn't shy away from the daily survival struggles for myriad creatures, from the tiny to the gigantic. A family of polar bears serves as bookends; mom rears her adorable fluffy little cubs while grappling with a swiftly melting ice shelf that makes hunting a vital challenge. As frost recedes, desserts spread and we see a herd of African elephants forced to travel dusty wastelands searching for a water-rich delta while fending off ravenous lions. These are but a few creatures displayed in this cinema menagerie, which includes exotic tropical birds, majestic humpback whales, playful baboons, massive herds of caribou that stretch to the horizon, as well as those cuddly moneymakers, penguins.
The word spectacular can't touch the pageant of untamed vistas here. Its truly breathtaking footage makes the ancient predator vs. prey dynamic fresh, and the most remote locations are wondrous and inviting. The movie is essentially a repurposing of work done for BBC's 2006 TV miniseries Planet Earth, which, you'll note, forced critics to exhaust their stockpile of superlatives.
James Earl Jones narrates with trademark authority, his deep baritone like the distant rumble of a herd of elephants. The movie occasionally gets overly cutesy, milking the mother-child themes, but effectively hammers home global-warming propaganda.
Ultimately, it's hard not to feel awed and ennobled by our planet's beauty and diversity, yet it's ducklings who provide the universal metaphor of life — as they waddle from their nest, they bravely leap skyward only to flop on their bellies. Then they shake their downy feathers and try again to fly.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].