Thursday, November 11, 2010

With A Good Commentary Track, Disney Nature's Oceans Might Have Been A Perfect Documentary!

The Good: Visually stunning, Absolutely amazing audio presentation, Informative, Well-developed and well-researched
The Bad: A little light on information at points
The Basics: An incredible documentary on undersea life and the power of the oceans, Oceans is a stunning documentary that lacks explanatory details.

I am a big fan of documentaries, which is something I never expected to be able to credibly say. I like documentaries, but I am always wary of the ones that make it to the big screen instead of appearing on, for example, PBS. After all, I tend to argue, why does one need the larger canvas of a movie screen to nail home their points? This argument certainly did not stop me from going to see Michael Moore's latest documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, but the truth is, many of Moore's points are not illustrated any better using the physically bigger presentation that cinema allows. Still, I indulge in cinematic documentaries from time to time and many times, I find the ones featuring animals to be worthwhile and a decent use of the medium. Like many people, I was enchanted by March Of The Penguins and while it was in theaters, my wife and I took in the new Disney Nature documentary Oceans.

Oceans is a mixed bag documentary that might have bitten off more than it could chew, but is very much worth the time (it's only an hour and a half) and expense of seeing on the big screen. While the movie is visually stunning, the current broadcast standard of HD means that the film will probably look at least as good on big screen televisions when it comes to the DVD or Blu-Ray presentation. However, the real reason, hands down, to see Oceans in the theaters is because so very few of us have a sound system that will do justice to the audio track of Oceans. Seeing the film in theaters allows one to have one of the most amazing auditory experiences they are likely ever to have and the result is well worth risking audiences filled with squirming children and texting teens. And, beyond that, Oceans is one of the most incredible undersea exploration documentaries of all time.

Starting with the rather inane question "What are oceans?" asked by Pierce Brosnan (in the English-language/American-release version), Oceans is an amazing, meandering journey through the oceans of the world, following several different undersea lifeforms. Opening with marine iguanas in the Galapagos Islands, the film illustrates the movements of horseshoe crabs, turtles, jellyfish and dolphins off South Africa. Featuring amazing footage of such things as sea urchin larvae, the movie captures rarely-seen (by humans) events like the sardine hunt of a school of dolphins and the other sea animals - birds, sharks, and whales - that get in on the action. All manner of sea creature are exposed, however briefly, from the blanket octopus to sea lions to an incredible sequence featuring opposing migrations of crabs, which devolves into an amazing battle between two great armies.

Oceans illustrates how sea lions hunt and play and exploring them allows the viewer to experience attacks from great white sharks and orcas. There is an amazing territorial battle that has a mantis shrimp combating a crab and, despite what the text at the end of the movie states, animals WERE harmed during the making of this film. In fact, a lot of animals were harmed and killed on-screen during Oceans, just not by human beings making the documentary. But those who are squeamish might find that the "G" rating does little to prepare them for such things as a fish that has had its tail bitten off, flailing until it is mercifully eaten. Animals fight each other, they eat one another and Oceans photographers were there to catch the action in some pretty stupendous shots.

Oceans is definitely for those who love such things as Animal Planet and who thrill for the simple life and death nature drama. There is plenty of such drama in Oceans, but more often than not, the magic of this documentary is in simply being able to experience things that most people would never be able to otherwise witness. Seeing the blinking patterns of the mantis shrimp is entirely fascinating and watching the stonefish and lionfish hunt and snap at their prey is visually spectacular and thrilling. Oceans also manages to catch rare footage of a reef at night and wild footage of an elderly Asian Sheepshead, which was pretty cool. The film is visually spectacular and features a few penguins at play and sea otters using tools.

Outside the narration, there is little of Man in the film and that works well for a nature documentary like this one. Even so, there is pretty amazing footage of a naval vessel fighting through some massive swells to help illustrate the pounding force of the ocean as a natural power. As well, Man is featured in gruesome footage of pollution of the ocean which comes near the end of the movie and drives home the need to preserve the untainted parts of the ocean.

As for the narration, in the U.S. it is Pierce Brosnan who does the voice-over work and he is good with the smooth vocalizations that help the movie flow. The narration helps make the transitions between different animals and locations work and Brosnan has a neutral speaking voice which never overshadows the visuals on screen.

One of the other nice aspects of Oceans is that the soundtrack is non-intrusive. At key moments, there is no musical accompaniment, instead allowing the viewer to hear the sounds of the ocean and the sound quality on this film is Oscar-worthy. Directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud assembled and created footage that is at the cutting edge of audio and visual limits. The sounds, for example, of crabs and shrimp are often more impressive than the whalesong the units captured because the miniscule animals create so much noise which is actually presented for the first time (I've seen) here.

My wife and I loved Oceans, but when it was over, I felt there was a lot of information missing and I would love to hear a good commentary track (or two - a technical "This is how we got this shot" and reference "These are the animals in this shot, this is where we found them, this is what they're doing and this grouping was this large" track) because as impressive as the movie is now, it is very light on details, hard information and statistics. That certainly makes it flow better, but for those serious about learning about the ocean, the movie leaves far too much out to be considered perfect. Unfortunately, the new DVD release of Oceans does not have that.

That said, this is one of the most visually and auditorily spectacular films of the year and staying through the closing credits allows the viewer to see some shots of the filming of the movie. Of course within the body of the film there are moments where some of the marine life reacts to the camera, but more often than not, what is truly incredible about Oceans is just how much the film captures of the reality of the open oceans and reefs.

Finally, while the adults in our audience were universally attentive, it seemed none of the children were (there were about thirty in the theater) adequately captivated for the entire screening. As a result, this might not be the best film to bring children to, despite it being family friendly. Bored children making noise ruin the experience for other viewers. Of course, captivated as I was by most of the footage, even children whining to their parents about being bored seldom distracted me this time.

For other films that veer more toward reality than fiction, please check out my reviews of:
Flash Of Genius
Charlie Wilson's War
The Hurt Locker


For other film reviews, please be sure to check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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