Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The nature of things.

Earth Day 2010 passed by last week and with it an occasion that deserves as much press as any other ecological initiative from anywhere else on this scarred globe we live on. The occasion was the release of Disney's second Earth Day movie, Oceans.

Disney's awkwardly named new production banner, Disneynature, was announced two years ago and painted its first images on a movie screen on Earth Day, April 22, 2009.

That film, Earth, was a collection of nature footage shot all over the world for various projects and released in various forms, including the acclaimed TV series Planet Earth, which first began airing as early as 2006. But far from being a recycling of used footage, Earth blended many diverse sequences into a seamless experience. The result transported audiences into an extraordinary natural world and delivered the latest in high definition digital cinematography to screens as big as your local IMAX theater. The mission was clearly to inspire its audience with wonder. It worked marvelously.

Earth had found an audience and a venue that it deserved and though, arguably greater viewer numbers could be gleaned from multiple showings on television and through DVD releases, a theatrical release created the platform and showcase that spotlighted the message behind the beautiful images with a grandness television outlets couldn't hope to achieve.

For Disney, none of this was new, not by decades. Walt Disney had realized early on that nature was a perfect setting for telling stories. Debuting the idea in 1948 with Disney's film
Seal Island, Walt's company would establish a new standard for nature photography and win an Oscar at the same time. From that first film sprung a series, Real Life Adventures and when Disney drew back the curtain on television's Disneyland, nature themed programing would be a natural and welcome part of its programming mix. Kids tuned in looking forward to stories like Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar or Beaver Valley and parents were captivated by the exotic locations and first time glimpses at a world and creatures that few had ever seen outside of magazines or the local zoo.

Along with Walt Disney, his nephew Roy had an abiding and deep respect for the natural world on film. Cutting his teeth in the company so famously run by his uncle and his dad, Roy began by writing material for the early True Life Adventure series and, many years later, would be responsible for reviving all of the films in a magnificent collection of four special edition DVDs. By that time though, other companies had stepped in and filled a void largely left vacant by Disney.

National Geographic and a host of other small international companies had continued to shoot and commission amazing footage of creatures and spaces from all over the globe, realizing that as ecological disasters loomed and species across our planet faced harrowing if not completely doomed futures, these stories had grown beyond curiosity to become a powerful tool for reminding audiences of the fragile balance of life. Continuing advances in digital cameras and video equipment allowed cinematographers to shoot animals, birds and marine life in places impossible decades earlier and the results once again drew audiences into the natural world that had been absent from movie screens for nearly a generation.

With nature themed attractions planned for its theme parks and a renewed interest in what Disney had coined "edutainment", recommitting itself to funding and showcasing movies about nature became a corporate cause, both to the ecology of the planet and to the bottom-line of its shareholders.

So are Disney's new real life adventures filling up the bottom line? Hardly. Last week's heavily hyped Earth Day opening of Oceans only managed to bring in a little over eight and a half million for the three day weekend, only good enough for an eighth place finish at U.S. box-office and merely a twelve million dollar total worldwide. (If you were a member of a first week audience, you can take some credit for helping the planet's coral reefs through donations Disney made on behalf of all first week ticket buyers.) A year later, Earth has managed sixty-nine million at the box-office and an additional thirteen million from DVD sales.

So what's the fuss? In a publicly traded company that relies on its image for its brand, it would be easy to say that nature is just another billboard for Disney to paint its logo on. But cynical views aside, there's something very special about these films and Disney's ongoing commitment to produce them.

Aside from being immensely (almost surprisingly) entertaining, there's good being done here beyond preserving the art of nature documentaries. When we saw
Oceans over the weekend, the Friday night audience was fewer than a hundred but ran the spectrum from sixties to six. Four teenage girls in front of us at the box-office who we were betting on to pop for J-Lo's The Back-Up Plan, bought tickets for Oceans. An elderly couple, parents with young kids (How to Train Your Dragon was right next door), young daters (the perfect demo for any number of other films showing), all were drawn by a film that, surprise, actually had something to say about issues young and old are becoming increasingly concerned about.

We are thrilled that Disney and others, have recognized that there is more to consider in creating successful movies than opening weekend ticket sales and short-term profits. We were also heartened by the diversity of people that found time on a Friday night to consider their world and its beauty, as well as its fragility.

You should see
Oceans. You should see it with people you know and care about. If you haven't already, you should rent or buy Earth. You should watch it with your kids, throw it on at a party, screen it in the backyard with your neighbors this summer and donate a copy to your local library, senior center or children's hospital. More than all of this, you should talk about it. And next Earth Day, April 22, 2011, you should take everyone you know, most especially kids, to see Disney's next Earth Day adventure African Cats. You'll be fascinated, immensely entertained and you'll be taking a moment out to remind yourself once again, that there's a world out there that needs you, and all of us, to better understand it.

For more information about Disneynature's Oceans, including information for educators, click here.