ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The documentary called "Earth" opens today in theaters. It is the first film released by Disney under its new Disney Nature label. It may look a little familiar, and that's because it features footage from the TV series "Planet Earth" that aired on the Discovery Channel.

Bob Mondello says when a subject is as big as all outdoors, the big screen has its advantages.

BOB MONDELLO: The TV series "Planet Earth" was 11 hours long and was such an enormous undertaking that it required the resources of three major television networks. By rights, condensing it to 96 minutes ought to diminish it, but the movie's tour guide is James Earl Jones, and Jones just doesn't do small.

(Soundbite of movie, "Earth")

Mr. JAMES EARL JONES (Actor): (As Narrator) As the planet tilts toward the sun, spring creeps up from the side(ph), and the (unintelligible) is unveiled from a blanket of snow.

MONDELLO: He's talking trees, for heaven sakes. Wait until he gets to the whales and the elephants.

The impulse driving the BBC when it conceived its "Planet Earth" project was to preserve images of the wilds of nature while they were still around to preserve. Wait too long in an age of global warming, went the logic, and the healthiest remaining tigers might be in zoos.

Now, the series didn't have to say that, nor does the film. Even when the images are majestic, you're constantly aware of the fragility of life, as when a polar bear emerges from hibernation with a pair of two-month-old cubs, blinking at the first daylight they have ever seen.

(Soundbite of movie, "Earth")

Mr. JONES: (As Narrator) She'll stay at home on these slopes and nurse the cubs until they find their footing, which as you can see might take a little while.

MONDELLO: Jones does occasionally go all grandfatherly on you.

(Soundbite of movie, "Earth")

Mr. JONES: Every year at this time, they need food desperately. They'll have to get down and join dad on the ice before it starts to melt in the warming sunlight.

MONDELLO: Note that dad on the ice. Perhaps because Disney is releasing the film in the U.S., the narration does a good deal of anthropomorphizing as it follows three animal families on treks spanning continents and oceans. Bears race a melting icecap, elephants cross a parched African plain and whales swim thousands of miles from warm water breeding grounds to Antarctic feeding grounds.

The ascribing of emotions to these critters can get a little "Lion King"-ripe at times, but the filmmakers have filled in around their family narratives with footage that's breathtaking enough on a towering screen that it's hard to object too strenuously, sweeping vistas of forests bursting into bloom and elemental struggles between hunter and hunted.

The filmmakers give Jones lots to say about many of the images they have captured, but they have the good sense to keep him quiet during the tensest of them, a ferocious chase that in real life can't have taken 15 seconds but that stretches out for more than two minutes on screen, a cheetah rushing from tall grass to surprise a tiny gazelle.

(Soundbite of movie, "Earth")

(Soundbite of music)

MONDELLO: In ultra-slow motion, you see every muscle rippled on both animals. The gazelle hurdles to the right. The cat follows. The gazelle stretches a little too far and stumbles, the cat seems almost to defer to this new development.

It places a paw on the gazelle's flank as if to steady it, guides it as it tumbles to the ground, then pulls even with its neck and seems, for a long, long moment, to nuzzle it in what is about to become a deadly embrace.

The film cuts away a few seconds before the TV version does. Death, at least in the movie theater is not bloody and is not designed to scare. This, intones James Earl Jones, is the circle of life that most of us in our urban lives have lost touch with. "Earth" does pretty much everything a film can do to put you back in touch.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of music)

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