Undersea kingdoms explored in poetic eco-doc ‘Oceans’
A few years ago, French documentary filmmaker Jacques Perrin astonished the world with Winged Migration, an extraordinary you-are-there look at bird life in which cameras seemed to soar in the air alongside geese, gulls, and other migrating flocks. Perrin now sets the bar for wildlife documentaries, so it’s no surprse it took him and his intrepid team some seven years to complete filming for his new release, Oceans. Although this time Perrin’s cameras delve deep—often straight to the sandy bottom—of the world’s seven seas, Oceans too soars in its own poetic way. Particularly when sea creatures huge and small are performing lazy aerial ballets in the vastness of blue aquatic space.
Last year, the folks at Walt Disneys’ Disneynature company launched the first of a planned series of eco-documentaries to be released annually on Earth Day. Last year’s film, appropriately enough, was Earth, about the marvels of the natural world above ground. Oceans is the second event in that series, exploring the infinite varieties of marine life from the Asian Sea to the oceans off South Africa and South America, from the tropical coral reefs of Australia, to the frozen waterways of Alaska, and the Arctic. It’s a marvelous journey into a rarely-seen inner space that can be just as alien, otherworldly, and weirdly beautiful as anything out of science fiction.
Perrin and co-director Jacques Cluzaud begin with a nod to the origins of life on earth introducing three sea creatures who could not look more like living dinosaurs: a gnarled marine iguana, armor-plated horseshoe crabs, and an ancient, venerable sea turtle. All of them, as English-language narrator Pierce Brosnan informs us, gazing out on the world with their “prehistoric eyes.” As Perrin uses the most innovative technological equipment available, we hear the lazy, reptilian swish of the iguana’s tail underwater and the busy clacking of crabby shells.
From there, the filmmakes launch into a comprehensive portrait of oceanic life, from minute sea urchin larvae floating in a drop of water to the gigantic Blue Whale (half a block long, weighing 120 tons), cruising majestically above the camera like the Imperial space warship at the beginning of Star Wars. Moonlight dapples the nocturnal crabs and fish of the coral reef. Pulsing neon jellies of all sizes rival the rippling red silk of an octopus for underwater beauty. Ribbon eels and the Spanish Dancer sea slug unfurl their colors, while the Leafy Sea Dragon seahorse shakes out it spectacular plumage.
Air-breathing aquatic life is included as well: slip-sliding penguins, playful sea lions frisking with their pups, Arctic polar bears, sea turtle hatchlings poking out of the sand to race for the tide, leaping dolphins, merry otters. (With all the world’s oceans to choose from, Perrin came to the Monterey Bay to film the otters.) In one lovely sequence, a mother walrus gently cradles her pup in his first underwater experience. And while Perrin and company have a special fondness for orcas (from unicorn Narwhals to Humbacks sleeping placidly upside-down), some of their most extraordinary footage featues one of the camera crew swimming companionably alongside a Great White Shark.
The film is rated G, and there are plenty of goofy, Dr. Seussian underwater critters with rotating eyes and prehistoric appearance to delight small children. But parents (and other tender-hearted types) be warned: in its zeal to document the delicate balance of nature and the circle of life, the film does occasionally show some of these critters getting eaten This critic was not happy to see specimens from two of her all-time favorite species of marine life become fodder for predators in this film. It’s all discreetly handled, but still.
Would that a bit more screen time had been devoted to chastising that most violent of predators who poses the greatest threat to sea life today: humankind. Lip service is paid to the dangers of fishing nets, the horrors of industrial pollution oozing down rivers into the sea, and the tragedy of melting polar ice caps. But the tone of the film (and Brosnan’s low-key narration) remains circumspect, an avuncular tsk-tsk instead of the clarion call to action the situation requires.
A Film by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud. Narrated by Pierce Brosnan. A Disneynature release. Rated G. 86 minutes.