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The Unnatural Habitat of Science Writer John Rennie

Seafood Sampler

John Rennie

Much to my surprise, the Walt Disney Company has released a film that is chock full of fish, not one of which talks or sings. Strictly speaking, Disneynature, an independent Disney label based in France, is the outfit responsible for Oceans, which opened in celebration of Earth Day. (Here's the film's official site, but warning: brace for flashy multimedia overload.) And strictly strictly speaking, this is actually the English international release of Océans, which debuted in France last year.

As you might expect, the cinematography is spectacular, especially during the film's first hour. (It's probably equally good during the last third, but there may be limits to just how much gorgeous underwater imagery the human brain can absorb without growing scales.) In contrast, the informational content connected to all that beauty is disappointingly low. The narrative carries viewers from ocean to ocean, pole to equator, surface to sea bottom; the individual moments seem to link together at least loosely but there's no clear sense of a master plan or theme guiding it. Pierce Brosnan's narration works so hard to be lyrical that all the earnestness starts to grate, and the writing lets its attitude of wonder overrun any genuine curiosity about the subject.

Scientific American's Steve Mirsky and I both emerged from a preview screening of Oceans last month with the same thought: the film should really be called Ocean Life. Almost the entire running time is occupied with showing fish, whales, sharks, jellies, coral, diatoms, crabs, cetaceans, anemones, kelp—living stuff. But aside from some beauty shots of angry waves breaking over rocks, seascapes under different temperaments of sky, icebergs calving into the sea and so on, the film shows almost no interest in nonbiological matters of oceanography. If you want to know more about currents, seafloor spreading, the chemistry or even the origins of seawater... make your own movie.

The cynic in me also couldn't help but wonder about some other things:

  • Can one really watch rocket launches from the shores of the Galapagos Islands? The film seems to imply as much, showing Galapagos marine iguanas crawling across rocks while a rocket takes off in the distance? I genuinely don't know, and perhaps there is an equatorial floating launch platform that has held that position.
  • Oceans has extraordinary sequences that show, for example, schools of small fish attracting schools of larger ones, which in turn draw flocks of seabirds, and then shoals of sharks. It's a brilliant, bloody frenzy. Did the photographers simply get amazingly lucky about documenting this event from start to finish? Did they know how enough to improve their chances somehow? Or did they somehow make it happen? I gather that the filmmakers behind these new Disneynature productions take exceptional journalistic integrity in compiling their footage honestly, and I would want that to be true. Still, given the long record of fakery in wildlife documentaries described in this Audubon magazine article by Ted Williams, I do have to wonder.

All in all, Oceans is worth seeing as eye candy and as a gorgeous enticement to learn more about its subject, but I can't help but wish that Disney had included a few talking fish. They might have answered some questions that the filmmakers didn't.