Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16
Last year, Disney launched its DisneyNature division by releasing Earth, which distilled material from the BBC's Planet Earth series. For DisneyNature's sophomore effort, Oceans, it looked to the creators of Winged Migration to come up with something more original. Except they didn't.
Of course, it's always been fashionable to bash Disney for turning out generically appealing family fare — "Disney-fying" something generally hasn't been a compliment. But over the course of a couple of generations, the company has certainly demonstrated that it can turn nature into narrative, whether in its True-Life Adventures shorts or tales like The Incredible Journey. In Oceans, it falls short; directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud offer up a lot of pretty pictures, but not something that feels like a movie.
It begins with a smooth-voiced Pierce Brosnan narrating scenes framed by the not-particularly-interesting question, "What is the ocean, anyway?" And based on Oceans footage, the answer is, "A whole lot of things." It's a place where dolphins and birds frantically feed on cyclones of sardines; otters frolic and groom themselves; exotic and bizarre species by the thousands lurk in coral reefs; and humans on a fishing boat look very small and fragile indeed.
All of these are interesting, and individually they can be impressive, cute, funny or awe-inspiring. But that's not the same thing as providing a cohesive idea or sense of purpose. Environmental consciousness would seem to be an obvious choice, especially for a film being released on Earth Day. While there's a token attempt to rally conservation-mindedness — including effective satellite footage showing the flow of toxins and pollutants into the oceans from river deltas — Oceans clearly pulls its punches. There's nothing inherently worthy about a documentary that lectures, but it's also disheartening when one delivers "be nice to our planet" ideas in a manner so calculated to be inoffensive.
In an era of omnipresent nature footage — just turn on cable TV — a nature documentary needs to provide at least one of two things. The first is technological innovation, like the kind that allowed cameras to soar with birds in Winged Migration or burrow into the insect world of Microcosmos. In Oceans, if you've seen one money shot of sharks and killer whales attacking sea lions, you've seen them all.
The second — and considerably easier — method is through simple anthropomorphic storytelling. There are several examples in Oceans of the way that approach can work on a small scale: a territorial smackdown between a shrimp and a crab; a meeting of thousands of spider crabs that turns the ocean floor into something resembling a battlefield; an affectionate hug between a mother walrus and her pup. This is the stuff that establishes connections between viewers and the creatures they're seeing on the screen.
But Oceans never seems to have the attention span to make these narrative moments stick. The editing rhythms feel all wrong, as though the film were put together by a kid dragging his parents from one aquarium exhibit to the next every 25 seconds. There's no question that Perrin and Cluzaud have a sense for images conveying the complexity and mystery of ocean life, from undulating ribbon eels to urchin larvae tumbling like extraterrestrial lights. But that's not the same as giving viewers a reason to see the images as anything more than an expensive photo album.
Disney should understand the power of story better than this. The oceans may be massive, but by giving too few of its inhabitants a context, Oceans makes them seem surprisingly small.