May 08, 2009
Family Film Blogging: Earth, or "Disney's Faces of Death"
Posted by Christine Hurt

This morning, I accompanied the kindergarten and first-grade classes at my kids' school to see Earth, a Disney nature film that was released on Earth Day.  The beginning of the film discusses how this film, and Oceans, to be released Earth Day 2010, are meant to recapture the wonder of Disney's True-Life Adventures series, which depicted day-to-day life of various animals ("Nature writes the screenplay.")  But I remember these shows, replayed on Sunday nights during my childhood as part of The Wonderful World of Disney, as mostly funny and heartwarming:  tales of otters making their way home and scenes of black bears scratching themselves against trees.  Just a warning:  Earth is only rarely funny or heartwarming.

Although Rated G, the 1 hour, 40 minute movie depicts many animal deaths.  So many that my son started counting them at the end.  For the most part, these deaths are bloodless, and the camera cuts away just as teeth hit the jugular, but the music, the tension and the slow motion of animals capturing their prey is fairly graphic.  And of course, most of the animals that die are "baby" animals.  A baby elephant gets lost from the herd, and James Earl Jones tells us that after the dust storm, the baby elephant starts following its mother's footprints to find her. . . .only he goes in the wrong direction.  (pan camera out, sad music begins.)  A caribou calf is chased out of the herd by a wolf and is able to outrun him for quite a long time, then is caught (camera freezes, pans out, sad music begins.)  Cheetah does same thing to gazelle, chases for a long time before gazelle trips, cheetah (in slow motion) goes for the jugular.  Baby elephants stalked by lions.  Baby walruses stalked by polar bear.  Big elephant taken down by herd of lions.  The worst was a long story line that ends with polar bear starving to death.  He is too weak to attack the walruses, and slowly lays down to die right next to them.  (My son asked, "So they're just all friends now?")  Luke basically spent the entire movie with his eyes closed and his hands over his ears. 

Disney must have some clout with the MPAA.  I looked at kids-in-mind.com, and Earth has a violence rating of 4 out of 10.  The only other movies with just 4s for violence and no other issues (sex/profanity) are rated PG (Escape to Witch Mountain, for example).  I'm not sure why other animated kids' movies are rated PG (Monsters v. Aliens, for example), but "true-life" violence between real animals is G.  I would say that kids are more frightened by violence between real animals that they were just told was real than violence between animated people or animated animals (Kung Fu Panda, for example).  At least I was pretty sure that half the scenes in Faces of Death were faked; here, they are not.  Whatever, that's life, I guess.  As James Earl Jones tells us, this is the Circle of Life (yes, there were several Disney-inside jokes in the narration).  But I think that a nature movie could find a few other things to film than polar bears starving to death.

The elephant in the room (ha, ha) is that the movie is supposed to make you more aware of global warming.  And, I guess if you're young enough, you might make a connection between the narrator telling us over and over that because of global warming, elephants have to travel longer to watering holes (and get eaten by lions on the way) and that because of global warming, the ice floes break earlier in the Spring, preventing polar bears from having firm ground on which to hunt seals (so they starve to death).  So, the movie is really more like Scared Straight:  if we would stop global warming, then elephants wouldn't get separated from their moms in duststorms and get eaten by lions.  If we would stop global warming, then polar bears could eat seals and not starve to death.  Good news for elephants and polar bears, but maybe not for lions and seals.

The movie does have stunning visuals, of course, similar to IMAX nature movies (without the stomach drop).  I'm sure there are some people that love the movie, but as someone who will be up all night with a 7 year-old, I'm not one of them.

Last point, and then I'll shut up.  The Supreme Court has granted cert. in U.S. v. Stevens, a case in which a filmmaker was convicted under 18 U.S.C. s. 48 for creating a video in which a pitbull attacked a pig.  The Third Circuit vacated the conviction.  (See Eugene Volokh's posts on the case here.)  I would think that if asked whether this statute is so overbroad that it would reach Disney's Earth, the prosecutors would argue that Stevens' film would be distinguishable from a nature documentary in that the animal-on-animal events in Earth are not staged. So, Stevens' film is a felony, but nature documentaries are fine.  I would suppose that the federal statute must be aimed at stopping filming of humans being cruel to animals or the filming of humans inciting animals to harm each other.  However, the statute (which the Third Circuit said was unconstitutional on its face) doesn't quite say that.  The statute prohibits recordings of animals being intentionally maimed, killed, etc.  I guess I could interpret that as meaning that a human must be involved and intentionally doing something so that the animal will be maimed, killed, etc.  Also, there are exceptions for recordings of educational value and artistic value.  And, the policy behind the law is not to stop the killing of animals in the ordinary course of human events, whether by the circle of life on the Serengeti or by the slaughterhouse.  The policy justification is that these videos spur animal cruelty, and the circle of life is not animal cruelty.  So, Disney is OK, even if Mr. Stevens is not.  However, if I were Mr. Stevens, I'd make sure my attorney has seen Earth.

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