Summer Movie Season: Flicks to Watch at Home

Summer Movie Season: Flicks to Watch at Home

Julie Leibach
Published: 08/01/2011

A mother polar bear teaches her two cubs to hunt in the Arctic. An African elephant herd crosses the Kalahari Desert in search of water. A humpback whale and her calf migrate thousands of miles from the tropics to the Southern Ocean. Earth loosely weaves together the tales of these families’ struggles to survive over one year. It’s the first feature film from Disney’s Disneynature division, and marks the company’s return to family-friendly nature documentaries, a genre it spawned with its True Life Adventures series in the 1950s. Much Earth footage is repackaged from the Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth series, but rather than feeling stale, the spectacular cinematography comes to life on the big screen. Narrated by James Earl Jones in his unmistakable sonorous voice, it touches lightly on changing environments, with brief mentions of melting polar ice caps and desertification. But the scope is really the animals’ exploits, and not just the three families. There are plenty of asides, from shots of adorable mandarin ducklings’ first flight, to slow-motion footage of a cheetah, muscles rippling, chasing down a gazelle. In such instances, the audience doesn’t actually see the bloody death. It is, after all, a G-rated production.—Alisa Opar

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea
Florentine Films and PBS, 12 hours
By Ken Burns

One summer when I was a teenager, my family piled into our minivan and drove from New Jersey to Arizona, pit-stopping at Bryce, Zion, and Grand Canyon national parks, the Petrified Forest, and Mesa Verde. To me, earning a National Parks Passport stamp at each entrance gate practically equaled seeing the parks themselves. Turns out, I’m what filmmaker Ken Burns calls a national park collector. In his six-part documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” Burns introduces more than 50 unique characters, including the Gehrkes, a childless couple that, in the 1920s and 1930s, traveled from park to park in “a revolving parade of new Buicks.” The documentary, which opens with awesome imagery of spewing lava and raging rivers, offers lots of spectacular footage and chronicles many of the system’s milestones, from Teddy Roosevelt’s 1903 Yellowstone visit to that park’s gray wolf reintroduction in 1995. There’s black-and-white footage of Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps and gorgeous shots of bison and other grand wildlife, interspersed with compelling observations by park rangers, historians, and nature lovers alike. The 12-hour program, over six nights, is so captivating that it seems much shorter. And it tells a uniquely American tale. Burns says, “For the first time in human history, land was set aside not for kings or noblemen or the very rich, but for everybody and for all time.—Michele Wilson

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