Folks will try to tell you that “The Wire” is the greatest television show of all time. They will be wrong. I usually don't make these kinds of distinctions, but the greatest television show of all time is “Planet Earth.” More than that, it's one of the great human achievements, an unprecedented visual experience of the natural world. The budget for the entire 11-part series, shot over several years, was roughly a tenth of what James Cameron spent on “Avatar.”
“Oceans” arrives in the wake. From the filmmaking team of Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, whose previous “Winged Migration” provided an inkling of the kind of images that technology was ready to provide, the film packages stunning photography of the ocean depths for a family audience. Sperm whales breach foaming seas in exquisite slow motion. Schools of fish whirl. Birds dive-bomb and float weight-less. Hundreds of dolphins flit and spin. Bright and colorful sea creatures dance. Fussy crabs scuttle. The opportunity to absorb these majestic images on the big screen should not be missed.
Originally having opened in the filmmakers' native France, the film's stateside release is a Disney affair. The studio is reentering the nature documentary fold after many years of absence. Its previous work in the genre has an ambiguous reputation. Walt Disney created his “True Life Adventure” series to capture wildlife as it had never been seen before, and to this day the beauty of those images remains breath-taking. At the same time, Disney deployed his trademark anthropomorphization on living creatures, staging unlikely and counterfactual “natural” plots that often crossed ethical lines.
Perrin and Cluzaud themselves aren't beyond deceptive theatrics, having used domesticated animals for some of the footage in “Winged Migration.” Their theatrical instincts are less restrained in “Oceans,” where a clumsy framing device emphasizes some odd connection between space travel and oceanic life, but at least there's no attempt to obscure their intentions when they shoot a stoic iguana gazing at ascend-ing spacecraft on the horizon, an orange glow in its unblinking eyes.
The heavy-handed narration is no match for the majesty of its attendant imagery. Frequently inane and tactful to a fault, Pierce Brosnan's narration provides scant facts, offering instead a kind of acquisitive knowledge, as if humanity can only begin to take responsibility for its impact on the natural world if bestowed a sense of ownership. In place of a legitimate respect, one based on biblical awe, the film gives us simple wonder, as if its family audiences couldn't recognize a beauty mixed with terror.
What remains is certainly worth the price of admission, but I can't rein in my anxiety over the ethics of access. How can audiences feel confident in their knowledge if it is scrubbed clean of real violence? What effect will this expunged sense of beauty have on our treatment of the natural world? Images torn free of context seem to be the way of the future. Indeed, two trailers that ran before this film felt like extended cuts from YouTube. The first was a feature-length home movie called “Babies,” a WMD of Cute. Second came the next installment in the DisneyNature series. More cuteness, more babies. This time kittens, or “African Cats.”
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