It feels strange to dissect Oceans, Disneynature's latest Earth Day release documentary intended to raise environmental awareness. On the one hand, it is always a good thing when filmmakers set out to join a conversation, so it's tough to fault the admirable and altruistic intentions pinned to the sleeve of Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud's film. On the other hand, Oceans is not a 103-minute long television special; it's a film people are expected to go to a movie theater to pay and see. And as a feature film it is, as much as it saddens me to say to say this, somewhat underwhelming.
The footage is all quite extraordinary, some of it even breathtaking. The trouble is that it is all in service of a largely directionless narrative that does little more than raise the wrong kind of questions. Is Oceans a documentary intended to educate the audience about our oceans? Is it an environmental activist recruitment film? A portrait of an underwater world? If it is supposed to be the former, then it outright fails. The film's narration, brought to life by a notably lifeless Pierce Brosnan, never once even mentions the names of our planet's five oceans, which is only the beginning of the film's shortcomings as an educational tool.
The majority of the film's beautiful cast members are never identified, thanks to Perrin and Cluzaud taking the same editorial approach as a View-Master. They are content with merely capturing brief vignettes of beautiful animals doing beautiful things that slide from one moment to the next in seemingly unrelated succession. Sometimes the results are quite poetic, but rarely are they informative. For example, a sequence that captures orcas hunting seals is accompanied only by this, paraphrased, line of narration, "One pod of killer whales has developed a unique way of hunting its prey." That's it. No context, no explanation of what is unique about their method or where this special pod of killer whales even lives. The fairly close-up footage is no help either as it simply shows the majestic animals attacking the seals in an unremarkable manner. Nothing is learned.
Most of the images, however, will fill audiences with absolute marvel even when they're presented free of context. It's no exaggeration to say that the footage of whales, particularly the time spent with humpbacks, is the best I have ever seen. There's one sweeping shot of a legion of spider crabs that is difficult to even comprehend. One of the most impressive sequences in Oceans is actually its most unexpected; a montage of boats, progressively larger in size, as they attempt to traverse rough seas is a profoundly humbling (and efficient) reminder that our land-born species, even in the year 2010, has no business trying to grow sea legs.
These people-aware moments are few and far between, though. So if the goal of Oceans is to explain how mankind is committing great wrongs against our planet by sullying the seas with our presence, then it also suffers due to a lack of information. Perrin and Cluzaud do their best to counter the absence of intel by presenting scenes that explain themselves without the aid of Brosnan's drone. Again, these moments pack a profound punch, particularly a sequence that brilliantly shatters 30-plus years of cinema doing its best to turn the great white shark into a ruthless killing machine, but they are too far rare to help pin down the film's schizophrenic tendencies.
If Oceans is neither educational nor adversarial (note: the original French cut of the film is reportedly more confrontational in its nature), then it becomes simply a portrait of a world most will never glimpse in person. The trouble with this approach is that the documentarian duo have painted the Mona Lisa of ocean life portraits. It's technically masterful -- due in no small part to having been filmed on 35mm, which gives it a vintage aesthetic in a medium dominated lately by digital photography -- yet it gives only a coy hint toward context or history. This renders the film somewhat boring.
While having nature documentaries available on the big screen is a thing to cherish during times when environmental concerns are at the fore, one must also consider the economic concerns. It seems callous to think of it this way, but if Disneynature's hope for Oceans is to create an event film that will bring families to movie theaters one should weigh the value of the experience. And the truth is there are far better values to be had at home. It'll likely cost a family of four around $40 to see Oceans in theaters. That $40 gives them a 103-minute long film equivalent of a slide show's unlabeled tour of the ocean. Sure, it has stunning sights worth seeing, just not for that value.
For $40 one could buy the entire BBC series Planet Earth on DVD. That's 10 hours of a more astounding, comprehensive, engaging and, most importantly, educational look at why nature is worth preserving. For a mere $8, less than the cost of a single movie ticket at most theaters, one could buy an episode of The Blue Planet: Seas of Life (I'd recommend Deep Sea) and take away considerably more from the time spent with it than the time spent with Disneynature's latest effort. It's unfortunate to think of a film like Oceans as just a commodity, but it's even more unfortunate that it never strives for a voice of its own strong enough to make one forget about human concerns and focus solely on planetary ones.