By Jonathan Merritt
Published in the Summer 2009 issue of Flourish magazine
When I attended a screening of earth, the first feature film to be released by Disneynature (on DVD September 1), I knew I would be wowed by rare footage and breathtaking scenery. What I didn’t know was that I would also be deeply moved by the film’s subtle spirituality. earth follows the extraordinary journey of three animal families through impossible locations across our fragile planet. Along the way, however, the film also reveals the creative character of God, valuable life lessons, and the environmental challenges humanity now faces.
When the film opens, the audience is overwhelmed with the vastness of planet earth as seen from space. The sun is just beginning to peak over the curved horizon and the booming voice of narrator James Earl Jones echoes out. The scene is spectacular and reminiscent of Psalm 19:1: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.” Indeed, taking in the sheer magnitude of our planet on the big screen is an experience for the soul.
But it doesn’t stop there. The majesty of the snow-tipped Himalayas, the precision of a caribou migration, the grandeur of the aururo australis, and a glimpse of a rainbow draw the audience in while illuminating God’s creativity, mystery, beauty, and covenant love. A whirling desert sandstorm seems to whisper of God’s power. A fresh depiction of the water cycle gushes of God’s providence and order. Even Jones’ comment that humans “depend on the great rivers and their endless flow” seems to lead us back to the One who sustains those rivers. As Psalm 65:9 says, “You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly.”
The life lessons are subtle and surprisingly applicable, given that a human never appears on screen during the film. A polar bear teaches parenting lessons and the utility of tough love, spectacular tropical birds uncover the woes of dating, and a herd of elephants highlights the importance of family bonds. But perhaps most profound is the lesson that applies to every popcorn-munching onlooker regardless of life stage: caring for creation is crucial.
Shrinking forests shown being crowded out by developers are surprisingly disturbing. The “life or death quest for water” by the film’s animals is emblematic of the 3 million humans who will die this year because they do not have access to clean drinking water. Actually seeing the effect that climate change is having on the ice caps and the polar bears is exponentially more powerful than reading about it. These are things which most us have lost touch with in our insulated urban fortresses, but they are things that we must be concerned about if we serve the Creator-God.
From a theatrical standpoint, the movie is easy to recommend. The storyline evokes laughter and horror, introspection and genuine joy. As I interviewed children, teenagers and parents following the screening, I was met with positive reviews and few complaints concerning the film’s cinematic qualities. But the real selling point for me is the film’s powerfully redemptive elements. If earth is an indication of what audiences can expect from Disneynature, the film’s oft-repeated dawning sun speaks metaphorically of the production company’s bright future.
Download a Flourish-Disneynature family discussion guide for earth, and use it to generate conversation with others after you view the film.