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Wings of Life(2011)
Disneynature presents a close-up look at the unsung heroes of our planet. Wings Of Life reveals the intricate worlds of bees, butterflies, birds, and bats. Our life on Earth relies on these incredible creatures, as more than one-third of our world's food supply is dependent on them. Yet we are increasingly threatening their lives, and if they should suddenly disappear, we may too. Directed by Louie Schwartzberg, Wings Of Life takes us on an adventure to reveal this spectacular world that is right in front of us, yet rarely seen in such incredible detail.
For more about Wings of Life and the Wings of Life Blu-ray release, see Wings of Life Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on April 14, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Narrator: Meryl Streep
» See full cast & crew
Wings of Life Blu-ray Review
"Life depends on little things we take for granted." So do documentaries...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, April 14, 2013
Wings of Life is an odd little documentary, unsure of exactly what it wants to be or what it so longs to say. Though undeniably gorgeous -- overwhelmingly so -- it lacks focus, personality, momentum, power and, more crucially, a sense of purpose. As an all-ages Disneynature film, it inches along at a caterpillar's pace; too slow and uneventful for children, too leisurely paced and monotonous for parents searching for more entertaining educational family fare. As a more traditional natural history documentary, it fawns over its youngest viewers to the point of alienating the adults in the room, exchanging more substantial science for sleepy, sing-songy narration (courtesy of Academy Award-winner Meryl Streep, taking on the role of a disembodied talking flower) and a much too accessible, kid-friendly narrative. It's a flighty, fluttering contradiction; a breathtaking but exasperating paradox meant for everyone yet incapable of profoundly speaking to anyone.
"In the countless landscapes of life on Earth, things are not always what they seem. What appears fragile may be fierce. What appears innocent may be calculating. Clever illusion is more than a means of survival. It's also a story of love. And of the mysterious force relentlessly driving all living things to reproduce themselves by any means necessary, including deception. I live in forests like this. But then, I live almost everywhere. This tropical forest appears still, but everywhere living things are following the mute commands of their genes to find mates and to ensure their species lives on. One might imagine that the most important life forms are large, or flashy, or smart. But it is love among the little things that actually runs the vast machinery of life. Some of the most important events on Earth occur quietly in small and hidden worlds. And some species critical to the grand scheme of life are not what you'd expect. This is a story about one of the most vital and ingenious of all living things. It's my story. I'm a flower. I'm going to tell you, on behalf of all flowers, about life from our point of view. You think we're just fragile wisps of beauty, unaware that beauty is our strategy. We're more important than you know. We've helped life prosper across the ages. Without us, humans might not survive..."
In the five minutes it took Streep to sigh her opening narration, two things became abundantly clear: Wings of Life was about to present one of the most fascinating and intricate processes on the planet as a saccharine romance between plants and insects, and writer/director Louis Schwartzberg and his overripe prose were going to be a bit pretentious for the Disneynature crowd. Over the course of the next fifteen minutes, Streep droned on and on, and I suddenly found myself distracted. Not by the irritating hush little baby tone of her voice, but by my son's expression: a perfect blend of uneasy bewilderment, budding boredom and ingrained curiosity, as if he wasn't sure whether he should lean forward and invest his full attention or walk away and play with LEGOs. Confirmation came soon after, as Streep whispered, "To reproduce, we form alliances with unusual partners. In this harsh realm, our strategy is not to deceive, but to nurture." Eyes narrow and brow scrunched, he turned his head toward me without taking his eyes off the screen, muttering, "what did she say?" Followed by, "I mean... I know what she said, but... what did she say?" I took a quick second to explain flowery language (a Venus flytrap to a writer's ego, says the hypocrite writing this review) and we soldiered on.
The remaining hour didn't get much better. (Although I will say the final stretch of the film, a look at a world without plants followed by an inspirational bit of everybody needs to pitch in enviro-hope, brings the documentary to a nice, fitting close.) We oohed and ahhed our way through the spectacular visuals and stunning digital photography, particularly the jaw-dropping slow-motion sequences (filmed at frame rates up to 1500fps) and the shots made possible with pinhole lenses (which allowed Schwartzberg's cameras to get within millimeters of an insect while retaining a clear view of the background). But, without realizing it at the time, we were both filtering out much of Streep's narration, soaking in the sights and blocking out most of the sounds. We rarely talk during a movie -- it's Brown Family Rule #3 -- but here we were, chatting away, growing quiet only when Streep would reveal the origin or purpose of an evolutionary advancement that wasn't self-explanatory.
More often than not, the relationship between the film's plants and insects is conveyed rather intuitively; further information is in somewhat short supply, at times making these overtly poetic stretches of narration a bit of an unnecessary and wasteful slog. Even at eight, my son already has the attention span of a fledgling cinephile, so his yawns shouldn't be dismissed. And, obvious bias aside, he's a bright little kid. He comes away from BBC Earth series spouting factoids and quoting Attenborough (elderly British accent and all), so his increasing disinterest in Wings of Life wasn't that of a boy who isn't properly equipped to sit through an hour-plus feature documentary. Alas, Schwartzberg's film doesn't do much to improve Disneynature's reputation for struggling to really connect with children and adults. It's typically one over the other, or, in this case, neither.
Admittedly, any documentary about plantlife faces a difficult challenge: presenting something that's essentially static, like a flower -- with no legs to hunt, wings to fly or eyes to express -- as a dynamic subject. David Attenborough and the BBC Natural History Unit set the as-yet-unrivaled bar in 1995 with The Private Life of Plants, which utilized time-lapse photography and clever editing to hypnotic, often dazzling effect. Wings of Life makes a valiant effort in that regard, employing slow-motion, time-lapse, advanced cameras and lenses, and other tricks of the natural history trade to elevate the film and make the various plants seem as deliberate and assertive in their behavior as they are. If Schwartzberg's script was more nimble, dramatic or playful, the film would have more life and charm. If Streep's narration was more energetic or engaging, the narrative itself would be stronger and more involving. If the experience was backed by something other than a less-than-subtle sexualization of what's apparently a steamy, sensuous affair between plants and their insect lovers, I might have taken it more seriously. Instead, Wings of Life is a visual marvel built atop a fractured foundation. It tries to be too many things to too many people, and fails to fully connect with any of them.
Wings of Life Blu-ray, Video Quality
Wings of Life is simply beautiful, and its 1080p/AVC-encoded video transfer stands as one of the more impressive presentations of a high definition nature documentary to date. It isn't flawless -- a handful of establishing shots are prone to minor, presumably inherent noise, a handful more exhibit exceedingly slight banding, and a rendezvous between bats and cacti fruit is beset by negligible macroblocking in the gray night skies -- but it's about as perfect as "perfect" gets. The photography is awash with bold splashes of vibrant color, with rich, eye-popping primaries, lush earthtones, fiery reds and oranges, vivid blues and purples, and deep, enveloping blacks. The image almost has a 3D quality, thanks to exceptional depth, dimensionality, contrast and detail. Edges are razor sharp yet free of aliasing and significant ringing, and fine textures are wonderfully resolved. Whether it's the branched hairs of a bee, the delicate veins of a flower petal or the tiniest grains of pollen, Disney's precise and proficient encode does it justice, without exception. Videophiles, armchair naturalists and more casual viewers of all ages will be thoroughly taken with the presentation.
Wings of Life Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Disney's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track doesn't make nearly as much of an impact as its video presentation, but then neither does the film's garden variety sound design. Narration is clean, clear and perfectly prioritized, no matter how subdued, restrained or hushed Streep's voice grows. Jan Holzner's score, meanwhile, dances in the background, ever present and harmless, almost to the point of being detached. In fact, everything about the mix seems to have been crafted to create a calm, serene soundscape without anything in the way of disruption or chaos, disruptive and chaotic as nature is. Still, the rear speakers wrap the experience round the listener like a warm, fuzzy blanket, and the LFE channel lends its support whenever called upon, even if that support is more akin to a soothing heartbeat than a pounding drum. The smallest insect creeks and chirps, the softest rustling of leaves and the most humble elements are represented without fail, and the entire mix sounds exactly as intended. The track isn't quite capable of sweeping anyone away to the film's far-flung forests and jungles on its own, but it certainly serves at the pleasure of the original photography and serves it well.
Wings of Life Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The only extra available is a much too short Disneynature overview paired with a brief sneak peek at the studio's next theatrical feature: Bears, due in April of 2014.
Wings of Life Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Too sluggish and plodding for most children, too superficial and airy for most adults, Wings of Life is yet another Disneynature documentary that tries and largely fails to appeal to both kids and their parents. A bit of salvation comes, though, by way of the film's magnificent imagery and high-speed, pinhole lensed photography. Arguably worth the cost of admission alone, the visuals are nothing short of stunning and deliver spectacular sights I can honestly say I've never seen before. (Or thought possible for that matter.) Thankfully, Disney's Blu-ray release follows suit with an equally impressive video transfer and a solid DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. Extras are almost nonexistent, sure. But natural history aficionados won't mind all that much anyway. So while the safest bet is a rental, I can't blame anyone for blind buying such a gorgeous documentary, even if its beauty only runs skin deep.
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