Who doesn’t love a good nature documentary? Admit it: You’re idly clicking the remote control, and suddenly there’s a scene with giraffes and hippos at a watering hole, and a half-hour later you look around and wonder where the time went.
The most visually rapturous show of this kind, “Planet Earth,” has become a kind of cult phenomenon — the equivalent of crack cocaine for high-definition video addicts.
I wouldn’t know; I have a 10-year-old analog television. So the big-screen version of “Planet Earth,” called simply “Earth,” was all new to me.
And all amazing. I don’t care how many times you watched Steve Irwin befriend a crocodile or Marlin Perkins dodge a zebra, “Earth” will make your jaw drop.
Filmmakers Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield photographed nature everywhere: polar bears in the Arctic ice, caribou crossing the tundra, elephants tramping across the dry plain.
Nonanimal nature is represented too: The flowering of trees and the falling of rivers are spectacularly filmed.
But let’s face it, people want to watch the animals. And “Earth” serves them up — with a good balance of the expected nature-documentary staples, cuteness and horror.
On the cuteness side, we get ducklings flinging themselves out of a nest and polar bear cubs sliding around on a snow bank. And penguins, of course. You didn’t seriously think they’d leave out the penguins, did you?
Death is part of the landscape, of course, and in nature’s breathtakingly amoral way, it doesn’t always work out the way you’d like. There’s an astonishing shot (taken from a helicopter so high it doesn’t disturb the animals) of a wolf chasing a young caribou. This can only end one of two ways.
Another amazing sequence has infrared footage of a nighttime scene of lions facing down an elephant. And there’s a slow-motion shot of a cheetah pouncing on a gazelle trying to escape that is — well, I’m running out of synonyms for astonishing.
Seeing that sequence in super-slow-motion reminds you of the implacable nature of death in the wild, as well as the sheer beauty of these animals, both of which are almost sideways to the ground as they turn. When the cheetah gets its jaws around the neck of the gazelle, it looks more like a kiss than a death about to happen — as narrator James Earl Jones reminds us, this is simply part of the cycle of life.
“Earth” cuts away from animal kills before the really brutal stuff happens. But you can guess at the next act.
If nature is indifferent to life and death, viewers won’t be. Does it sound a little intense for young kids? Probably it will be, especially when a starving polar bear tries to feed on a walrus pack.
And anyway, whose idea was it to have James Earl Jones narrate? Not only does the movie get a little sugary with its storytelling (animal parents are invariably referred to as “Mom” and “Dad”), but the news that half of the polar bear cubs born are unlikely to survive very long is even worse coming from the mouth of Darth Vader.
Just keep thinking about those adorable ducklings.
“Earth” is distributed by the Disney company, which has vowed to plant a tree for every ticket-buyer, which might be a publicity gimmick but is undeniably superior to most movie-release publicity gimmicks.
It’s a jungle out there, but the jungle is shrinking — a point “Earth” makes in its discreet way, along with the stunning pictures.