The Challenge of the Nature Doc
I don't know whether to be happy or sad about good quality nature documentaries being so readily available these days that one must look extra hard to recognize any as special. That's what occurred to me as I watched Oceans, a sumptuously photographed doc by directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, released in the U.S. under Disney's "Disneynature" series. The movie is undeniably beautiful, with shots of whales, dolphins, schools of fish moving in unison, creatures battling on the sea floor, all presented with crystal clarity. But scenes of this quality aren't new, nor are they limited to the seas -- Perrin and Cluzaud's own Winged Migration was an excellent example of nature cinematography (of birds in flight), and the BBC series Planet Earth -- which, incidentally, had its footage edited into a feature-length movie by Disneynature called Earth -- provided stunning shots of everything from ice regions to rain forests to, yes, the ocean.
That shouldn't diminish anyone's enjoyment of watching Oceans, and if the film does have a standout quality, it would be its meditativeness. The movie foregoes being instructive or directly educational -- in the American version, Pierce Brosnan narrates, but he doesn't tell stories or list facts; he namechecks most of the animals but otherwise waxes philosophical about what we're looking at. And yet even this feels intrusive -- frankly, the movie would work perfectly without any narration (which is mainly provided for the movie's young target audience anyway). The images have an entrancing intimate quality, but I wonder if a sustained viewing would eventually feel like staring at a screen saver.
Although Oceans also suffers a bit from hoping to cover a lot in a fairly short amount of time, perhaps this criticism just stems from a personal desire to see something with this caliber of cinematography demonstrate the ambition of having longer, fewer distinct sections, as in a symphony with four or five movements. Instead, the movie gives us bursts, visiting everything from crabs to cuttlefish, sea lions to penguins. Some of those bursts include ecological warnings, and one gets the feeling Perrin and Cluzaud had much to say on many subjects (Disneynature's release, according to IMDb, reportedly cuts about 20 minutes from the international version). It's fortunate, then, that much of what they do cover comes across as memorable in terms of sheer visual impact -- a sea floor covered with spider crabs, or a scuba diver swimming alongside a shark as if they were pool buddies. The main accomplishment of any film about the ocean is often to make us realize we're barely conscious of so much that's amazing about our own planet, and Oceans does that with swimming colors.
(Released by Disneynature and rated "G" for general audiences.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.