Last week my girlfriend and I saw the new Disneynature documentary Oceans. Great flick. Gorgeous underwater photography. Fascinating portraits of undersea life. The sounds are particularly vivid - I’m impressed with their underwater microphones. But I’m more impressed that the folks at Disneynature, and therefore, Disney, chose to include serious themes.
The independently produced March of the Penguins (2005) was an unexpected box office smash - amongst summer movies like Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, War of the Worlds and Batman Begins, no less - and went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Morgan Freeman narrates the annual journey of emperor penguins across the frozen Antarctic landscape in order to couple up and lay an egg. The male keeps the egg warm until it hatches, while the female treks back to the water, gathers some food, brings it back (she’s been gone two months by this point), barfs it up for her chick, and the male heads back to the water to eat for the first time in four months. Various conservatives championed the movie for affirming traditional values, intelligent design and the existence of God (none of which was intended by the film’s director). Radio host Michael Medved said the movie “passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing.” He recommended it to those who liked The Passion of the Christ (2004) - another suprise box office hit, which brought in an astounding $611 million despite having subtitles, an R rating and a story everyone knows the ending of.
There’s clearly a conservative-christian-family market out there, something Disney’s known and thrived upon for a long time (at least the family part of that demographic). So I wouldn’t have been surprised if, when venturing into the genre of nature documentaries, they’d chosen to make a film that not only didn’t rock any conservative boats, but could be interpreted as a bolster to traditional values, or at least showed nature as a benign improvised ballet of happy animals.
But they didn’t. Well, there are shots of dolphins leaping in the air and sea lions laying peacefully on the beach. But we also see a massive swirling school of sardines being eaten by those dolphins, as well as other fish, sharks, whales and dive-bombing birds. In one scene a mantis shrimp fights a crab, the cameras showing it like a boxing match. The shrimp yanks one of the crab’s pincers right off, and eats it in front of the crab, which stares back, seemingly dazed. The shrimp gives the crab a final whack, and the crab falls backward, its body now lifeless. You can even see this encounter on Disneynature’s website promoting the film. Another scene shows baby sea turtles being picked off by birds as they struggle to reach the sea, and we’re told only one in a thousand make it. We see whales eating sea lions. Two huge armies of crabs meet and do battle. This isn’t The Lion King, where predators and prey set aside their differences and sing about how well they get along.
Oceans mentions the process of evolution spanning millions of years, casually placing itself on the scientific side of that particular debate. They easily could have kept silent. The website christiananswers.net gave the film a good review, but warned its readers the that “The movie firmly establishes its belief that evolution, an unproven theory, was the process by which life developed on earth,” and recommends its readers look into a further discussion of the topic elsewhere on the site, (where you can explore such questions as Did Adam Have a Belly Button?) and to visit the Creation Museum in Kentucky.
Oceans also comes with a strong environmental message. We see fish, sea turtles, and a whale shark caught in a giant fishing net, struggling and not getting free. In a section about pollution there’s a rusting shopping cart underwater amidst other debris, that a fish explores. The narration tells us “human indifference is now the biggest threat to the oceans”. In a segment on Arctic life they allude to humanity’s role in the disappearing of the polar bear’s habitat - albeit without using the terms “climate change” or “global warming”. Not so coincidentally, the movie came out on Earth Day, as did Disneynature’s previous film Earth.
In an interview with National Geographic, Luc Jacquet, director of March of the Penguins was asked why he didn’t make any reference to global warming in the film. He said “In my opinion, the best way to protect the planet is to get people to like it. One protects what one loves. It's obvious that global warming has an impact on the reproduction of the penguins. But much of public opinion appears insensitive to the dangers of global warming. We have to find other ways to communicate to people about it, not just lecture them.”
I agree. Any well made nature documentary brings the wonder of nature more strongly into the audience’s consciousness, and one would think this would bring a desire to protect it. But people can be thick. In a recent episode of Food Revolution, Jamie Oliver shows a group of West Virginia school children what goes into a chicken nugget, processing the ingredients from a chicken carcass in front of them, the kids saying “ewwwwwww!” every time he brings the mucky guts, bone, skin and blood paste near them and asks if any of them would like to eat it. He adds starch, cuts the gunk into small patties, breads them and throws them in a pan of cooking oil and asks who’d like to eat them now... and all the kids raise their hand. Oliver is stunned. He later says that he’s done that demonstration to kids many times, and this is the first time it’s failed. He serves the patties and the kids eat them.
In an article about conservatives embracing March of the Penguins in the blog Spiked (“dedicated to raising the horizons of humanity by waging a culture war of words against misanthropy, priggishness, prejudice, luddism, illiberalism and irrationalism in all their ancient and modern forms”), the writer concludes saying “it’s just anthropomorphic overkill to say that emperor penguins, whose existence is a repetitive cycle of hardship and suffering, are just like us. Let’s leave the hybridisation of animals and humans to the fantasy world of Walt Disney.” Well, a year later, Warner Brothers gave us singing and tap dancing penguins in Happy Feet. Then Sony/Columbia gave us surfing penguins in Surf's Up. And what did Disney give us? Sea animals that swim, play, fight, kill, eat each other, and even make war. Evolution. Beauty. Wonder. Pollution. Overfishing. Go Disney! Keep it up! Maybe some day they’ll even stop manufacturing their products in third world sweatshops.