Alongside the animated animals that have long been its bread and butter, the movie studio founded by Walt Disney once regularly produced 13 nature documentaries featuring the real thing under its “True-Life Adventures” banner, before it was retired in 1960. Forty-nine years later, their new Disneynature division revives the tradition of family-friendly nature films that reflect a new environmental awareness and responsibility. Appropriately, the inaugural release hits theaters on Earth Day with an equally appropriate title: Earth.

“There is a great appetite from the worldwide audience for this type of film,” says Disneynature Executive Vice President Jean-Francois Camilleri, offering the success of movies like March of the Penguins, Winged Migration and the international release of Earth as proof. “It makes so much sense for Disney to bring these beautiful films and stories to the big screen. People care about nature more than they might have cared 20 years ago,” he believes, noting that technological developments in film, camera equipment and sound has made this kind of filmmaking more feasible than ever. “It’s a perfect time to revisit nature.”

Disneynature plans to release one film per year, the next focusing on oceans, with African Cats, Naked Beauty -- about the relationship between plants and pollinators like bees, hummingbirds and butterflies -- and Chimpanzees, re-teaming Earth directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield.

The BBC documentary vets, who made the Emmy Award-winning TV series Planet Earth, spent five years bringing Earth to theaters. “We knew from the very beginning that we were working on a TV series and a movie,” says Fothergill, though the latter would have a completely different storyline. “What the series helped us to provide was some of the animal behaviors you see, but all of them were completely re-edited for the big screen.” A score performed by the Berlin Philharmonic and the voice of narrator James Earl Jones completes the package. “He brings a gravitas fitting of the subject,” Linfield tells MNN.

Earth follows the sun’s journey and changing of seasons over a year, zeroing in on the migrations of mother-offspring characters including polar bears, elephants, and humpback whales. “They are all engaging, intelligent creatures that we felt people would connect with, and that was very important in telling the story,” Linfield notes.

The ambitiousness of the project was not lost on either director. “Nobody had ever tried to do the natural history of the whole planet,” says Fothergill. “Logistically, it was massive.” The pair spent three years in actual production. “There were 2,000 days in the field with over 40 different teams,” Linfield enumerates, crediting the expert input, planning and patience needed to pull it all together.

“There were some real technological challenges in this movie,” comments Fothergill. “We were extraordinarily lucky that high-definition cameras had just become available at the beginning of the shooting. There is an extraordinary camera system called a Cineflex, which stabilizes a lens four or five times more powerful than has ever been stabilized in a helicopter before, and that’s extremely important for wildlife documentaries because you can fly four times higher and still get all the close-ups you need,” he explains.

Aerial cameras provide the panoramic big picture, but the filmmakers also got very up close and personal with their subjects, as perilous as that might be. “A 15-20 ton elephant, looking after her calf, will run straight through your Land Rover without even thinking about it,” Fothergill offers as an example. “Starving polar bears see you as a nice, tasty mammal,” adds Linfield.

Parents of very young or sensitive children should be warned: the G-rated film nevertheless contains scenes of predator catching prey, but the filmmakers were “careful to cut them so that you don’t dwell on the blood and gore.” There are many moments of levity to balance the serious circle-of-life sequences, such as the mating dance of a preening bird of paradise. “He puts all that effort in and the girl never turns up,” chuckles Fothergill. “Well, we’ve all been there.”

He hopes that audiences enjoy Earth while absorbing its environmental preservation message. “This isn’t An Inconvenient Truth. It’s not The Eleventh Hour. It’s got a strong conservation message but it’s subtle -- it’s not trying to preach to people.”

Earth opens in 1,800 theaters on Apr. 22, and for every ticket sold in its first week of release Disney will plant a tree in the Atlantic rainforest in Brazil.

Also on MNN:

> Mickey Mouse goes green

> MNN's complete Earth Day coverage

Nature according to Disney
Mickey Mouse dips a large toe into the nature documentary genre with a big-screen debut this Wednesday.