Sixty years ago, Disney blazed the trail for nature filmmaking. It seems kind of unfair that today, the company seems like it’s bringing up the rear.
While the documentary “Earth ” marks the launch of the new DisneyNature specialty division, nature footage has become the province of cable networks like Discovery and Animal Planet. When the big screen re-embraced the nature documentary with “Winged Migration” and “March of the Penguins,” filmmakers already knew the wisdom of providing exotic spectacle and/or humanizing their subjects. “Earth” arrives as a solidly made addition to the ranks “ but it’s almost impossible for it not to feel like a copycat.
Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield shape their story into a sort of “year in the life of the planet,” spanning the globe for epic tales of survival, narrated by James Earl Jones. In the Arctic, they follow polar bears struggling to feed on thinning sea ice. In Africa, an elephant herd makes a trek to find water and food. And in the Pacific Ocean, a mother-and-child humpback whale duo make an even longer journey to Antarctic feeding grounds.
At the outset, it looks like it’s going to follow “Arctic Tale” as advocacy filmmaking about the impact of climate change, except that only pops up sporadically, as though the directors were timid about appearing too strident. With no unique voice, “Earth” is often little more than a sampler platter of the last 30 years of nature documentaries.
Yet for all that, there are still moments when “Earth” finds something uniquely gripping. There’s still room in this genre for innovation, and when you find it, it can still be fascinating.