Why the New Movie "Earth" Might Terrify Your Kids

There's a scene early in the gorgeous new documentary "Earth" in which a wolf stalks a caribou calf through the grasslands of northern Canada. The chase, filmed in slow motion, feels epic. At points the calf seems on the verge of escape. Then, in a blink, its little legs buckle. The movie doesn't show what happens next, but in the theater where I saw it, everyone got the point—including the little girl sitting in front of me, who jumped into her father's lap and buried her face in his neck. She was terrified. So was I.

This wasn't a case of bad parenting. "Earth," the first release from Disneynature, the studio's ecologically oriented film division, is rated G. It's a theatrical version of the BBC miniseries "Planet Earth," only with the grisly parts lopped out to make it family friendly. At least that's the idea. "That's funny about the girl's reaction," says co-director Mark Linfield. "We thought very hard about what is the right level for children." The goal, he says, was to portray the wild kingdom honestly without having to "Disney-ify" the film. "The bottom line," says co-director Alastair Fothergill, "is that nature is rendered tooth and claw."

Just without blood and guts—and the notion that that's enough to merit a G rating is a bit too easy. The implied death of an animal, heightened with anxious slo-mo, is frightening whether it happens onscreen or off. Later, a baby elephant is separated from its herd during a sandstorm, and when the dust settles, the narrator tells us it's following footsteps in the wrong direction—toward certain death, in other words. "It may well be," says Linfield, "that the little elephant getting lost is sadder to you" than to kids in the audience. Perhaps. By that point in the screening, the little girl in front of me had already left.