It’s hard to talk about climate change on the big screen without first alluding to the changing climate of Hollywood filmmaking. From Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth to the politically charged disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow, film has become a tool (occasionally a blunt, heavy one) for communicating urgent environmental warnings. Consequently, audiences tempted to drop 10 bucks on cute animals and majestic scenery are asking, "Will I be entertained or chastised?"
Fair question. Parents took their children to see Happy Feet, the fictional story of a misfit, tap-dancing penguin, only to have that animated lark turn dark when it vilified humans for fishing. A few months later, the big-screen documentary Arctic Tale dedicated its final minutes to cute kids suggesting that anyone not driving a hybrid is guilty of killing polar bears. To some, the end justifies the means. To others, it’s high time someone released a jaw-droppingly beautiful nature flick guaranteed to leave us feeling more inspired than browbeaten. If that’s you, Disney’s Earth is the adventure you’ve been waiting for.
Make no mistake, Earth tells us that our planet is heating up. But it does so without any scolding or heavy-handed sermonizing. It would rather blow us away with time-lapse footage of pulsating fungi, flowers bursting open like fireworks, the aurora australis light show, and a colorful forest racing through the four seasons right before our eyes. Elsewhere, predators catch their dinner in super slow motion, and sailfish, dolphins and fur seals dart gracefully through frightened schools of fish like starfighters in a George Lucas-choreographed space battle.
Some of the film’s most memorable shots are taken from the air, capturing the sheer magnitude of sprawling flocks and herds. It’s the rare viewer whose pulse won’t quicken when the camera glides along a gorgeous mountain stream, only to sail suddenly over the precipice of an enormous waterfall. (Note to Disney theme parks: Please, please add that to Soarin’!)
But Earth is more than just a video travelogue filled with gorgeous scenery. The journeys of three families—polar bears, elephants and humpback whales—provide a narrative thread as we follow their annual treks across an ever-changing landscape. Although the whales are beautiful to behold, the elephants and male polar bear supply the greater drama. In fact, after wincing now and then as carnivores subdue innocent-looking prey (wolves isolate a baby caribou; a cheetah chases down a gazelle; 30 lions gang-tackle an adult elephant; a great white shark gobbles up a seal), we’re half-rooting for the exhausted, literally starving polar bear to snag a snack in the form of a young walrus. I’ve never felt that much sympathy for a dominant predator.
Some young children may find those violent scenes disturbing, but their presence gives parents a chance to explain that death is a necessary part of (as narrator James Earl Jones reminds us with Mufasa gravitas) "the circle of life." These beasts are just doing what comes naturally … for survival. Rest assured, there are also plenty of cute baby animals, and any references to the mating rituals that keep the circle going are discreet.
In an era when just about any realistic image can be generated in a computer, it takes this sort of natural beauty and majesty to truly impress us. Which is why it’s a shame that Earth doesn’t give credit where credit is due. Psalm 24:1 reminds us, "The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it." Yet the Creator of the universe gets no recognition for His handiwork. I can’t say I’m surprised, but I’m still disappointed. So it’s up to us to build that bridge. With our kids. With our friends and neighbors. Because while there’s no mention of any supernatural involvement in nature’s form and function, Earth’s breathtaking photography remains a vibrant testimony to God’s power and creativity.