Disneynature’s OCEANS, the follow-up to its earlier EARTH, does a very clever thing by way of getting across its environmentalist message. Instead of hitting the audience over the head with disturbing, heartbreaking images of animals being exterminated in all manner of unpleasant ways by actions of an indifferent humankind, it presents all the equally emotional reasons for preserving ocean life simply by showing it. By the time the threat that humankind poses is addressed about an hour into the film, it’s done with images used to illustrate over-fishing and pollution that are remarkably reserved as far as distressed animals, but potent nonetheless in the harm caused. This is a film that chooses to dwell on the miraculous as its argument for conservation, and in this, it succeeds brilliantly with a visually dynamic component that is nothing less than dazzling.
Introduced with starling intimacy are the familiar, the alien, and sometimes a fascinating combination of the two, as with a blanket octopus that takes the viewer a few moments to sort out into its constituent octopus pieces. Even the familiar is presented with a breathtaking perspective, making a marvel of even the humble marine iguana of the Galapagos. The narration, richly intoned by Pierce Brosnan, does not here or anywhere else, overwhelm with facts and figures and statistics. That this is the only marine iguana in the world is not mentioned and it doesn’t need to be. This odd creature, completely terrestrial in appearance, is shown grazing the ocean floor and then languidly shimmying to the surface, the camera, cheek-by-jowl with the iguana, following its unhurried ascent to distant surface, making this creature’s world that of the viewer as well. The narration is blissfully sparse and unobtrusive, providing context when needed, but mostly staying out of the way and letting the visual impact work its magic.
Seven years in production, co-directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud of WINGED MIGRATION, this is a film that uses the latest technology to present age-old concepts of drama, comedy, tragedy, and playfulness in the animal world without the cheapening tactic of anthropomorphizing the action. There is instead a more compelling universal quality to the way dolphins spin in mid-air, and the way that a walrus cradles her pup with a protective flipper as she introduces it to the sea. There is also no equivocation about the circle of life. Seals fall prey to sharks, baby sea turtles to frigate birds, and there is an eerie crunch captured by the sound technicians as a crab tucks into its dinner. A sardine hunt builds in intensity as first dolphins herd them, then seagulls dive bomb them, and finally a whale breaches through the school’s center. The filmmakers show a modest discretion when it comes to showing the worst of it though, and, in a telling decision, the only time the water is bloodied is when a trawling net is shown with its unintended catch that are killed nonetheless. In a deft bit of emotionally satisfying editing, the next sequence deals with the ocean’s power. Huge ships confront dwarfing waves, and a tracking shot in CGI takes the viewer from the surface to a satellite image of a raging storm covering most of the picture from space.
OCEANS is a celebration, and while it does not ignore habitats that are compromised, it is more interested in creating a sense of wonder, the which it does non-stop with armies of crustaceans going to war with one another, or the anti-intuitive sight of a diver swimming companionably with a great white shark. If it doesn’t attempt to cover every aspect of marine life, the deepest-dwelling creatures are notably absent, that lack fails to register as a flaw when there is a ribbon eel that unfurls itself without an end in sight, and humpback whales swim inches from the ocean floor without, as the narration notes, disturbing a grain of sand. It is a rapturous 89 minutes from the first moment to the last, including closing credits that show the lengths, not to mention depths, that the camera crew went in order to get their footage.