The true stars of Sunday's Earth Day 2012 won't stroll down movie-premiere red carpets or grace the covers of glossy celebrity magazines.
Instead, the assortment of wild animals, legal crusaders and politicians will use their powers of persuasion and (in some cases) inherent cuteness to call attention to an array of environmental issues via a batch of new documentaries.
This year's menagerie includes endangered polar bears (from the IMAX production To the Arctic); wild chimpanzees (Disneynature's Chimpanzee); legal consultant Erin Brokovich (drought-themed Last Call at the Oasis); and Mohamed Nasheed, embattled former president of the Republic of Maldives (The Island President, about global warming).
Earth Day Network, the group that coordinates the global activities. "Regardless of who they belong to, these faces are essential to making the public focus on key issues through their stories."
The timing of the release of these documentaries is a natural: "It's the one time of year when everyone is focusing on environment and conservation," says Don Hahn, an executive vice president at Disneynature, which has released four movies around Earth Day, starting with 2007's Earth. (The documentary, which has earned more than $108 million, is the second-highest-grossing nature film of all time, behindMarch of thePenguins' $127 million, according to boxofficemojo.com.)
"It's a good fit for everyone," Hahn says. "It's like releasing a holiday film around Christmas."
Meanwhile, the unleashed power of movies has a notable effect on nature. "They are so effective in highlighting crucial issues," says Geoff York, a biologist for the World Wildlife Fund. "We are a very visual people, and these movies allow people to care on an emotional level far more than any facts and figures."
Look for emotions to start flowing in theaters across the country with the screening of these documentaries:
It's easy to focus on the environment when it's represented by the wide-eyed face of wild African chimp Oscar. The film (opening Friday in select cities) follows him from his early days in the Ivory Coast's Tai Forest, even capturing his first frail attempts at climbing a vine.
"Oscar wrote his own part in this by being the cutest young chimpanzee around," says co-director (with Alastair Fothergil) Mark Linfield. "He's just so gorgeous. From the first shot, the film audience just falls in love."
Oscar's tale benefits from a compelling story line that played out during the three years of filmmaking. His protective mother was killed, and, against all odds, the young chimp was adopted by the alpha male in the group, something so rare it has never been captured on film.
There isn't overt preaching about conservation in the film, narrated by Tim Allen. The filmmakers are counting on audiences to make the emotional connection with Oscar and become chimp protectors.
"You hope that people fall in love with chimpanzees and want to help save them," Linfield says. "It's conservation through the back door, which is the most effective. In terms of making people emotionally feel for chimpanzees, the movie theater is the best place to do it."
Famed anthropologist Jane Goodall, whose primate conservation institute receives a portion of Chimpanzee ticket sales during the first week of its release, sees big potential in that philosophy: "If Oscar's big brown eyes inspire people to learn more about chimpanzees and perhaps do something to help them, we can all consider the film a great success."
'To the Arctic'
The IMAX film To the Arctic (Friday) might feature the narration of Meryl Streep and the songs of Paul McCartney, but the real stars are a mother polar bear and two 7-month-old cubs.
Director Greg MacGillivray and his producer son, Shaun, had taken five Arctic trips over four years to chronicle the effects of global warming on the region. They had an edited version of the film, but on a final trip, they came across the polar bear family and for five days shot rare footage.
"To see the mother polar bear nursing her cubs, finding seals to eat and protecting her cubs from male polar bears — we were just pinching ourselves," Shaun says. "We knew this would resonate."
Says Greg MacGillivray: "We tore the existing movie apart and framed it around these polar bears. It was a gift we were given."
The bears are the perfect subject to frame the discussion, because the effect of global warming on the bears' feeding habits is obvious: The lack of ice makes hunting significantly harder.
"The polar bear is the perfect animal for us," Greg MacGillivray says. "They are the apex predator, the top of the food chain. But they can also seem like such cuddly animals."
'The Island President'
The documentary, which remains in theaters after its release March 28, also tackles climate change through charismatic Mohamed Nasheed, who is often called the "Mandela of the Maldives." Nasheed went from a critic of his tiny country's oppressive political regime to its first democratically elected president in 2008.
Director Jon Shenk followed Nasheed extensively during his first year in office while the president took on the climate change that was devastating his low-lying country. Its thousands of tiny tropical islands could become consumed by the rising levels of the Indian Ocean. Already, residents from 16 islands have been forced to move because of intense erosion.
"Climate change is something that is happening now; it's not in the future," Nasheed says.
Nasheed proves an engaging character as he holds a Cabinet meeting underwater in scuba gear to promote his country's plight or when he turns into a tireless force at the 2009 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.
"You have this sense of impending doom in the film, and on another hand, you have this hope in this hero," Shenk says. "He fights and fights. He doesn't give up hope.
"It's David taking on Goliath all over again."
Earlier this year, Nasheed was removed from office in a political coup. But he has continued to push for environmental change. This month, he proved such an entertaining guest on The Late Show With David Letterman that the host kept him on for two show segments, an honor generally reserved for A-list movie stars.
"Some days are bad, but I am an optimist," Nasheed says. "And I do believe goodness will finally prevail."
'Last Call at the Oasis'
Water is also the focus of this documentary (May 4), from contamination of drinking water to severe droughts caused by climate change to the dire predictions of severe freshwater shortages.
"There's probably nothing else so important in life, and it's so in jeopardy," says directorJessica Yu. "Yet we have no real awareness of it.
"It's not just denial. It's just not on people's radar."
Yu knew she needed strong characters to help convey the message.
"When we first started, we wanted to find people deeply engaged in these issues," she says. "So we were constantly looking for people like Erin Brockovich. And then we thought, 'Well, where is the actual Erin Brockovich?' "
The 2000 film Erin Brockovich had dramatized the legal crusader's battle over contaminated drinking water in Hinkley, Calif. Julia Roberts won an Academy Award for her portrayal, and Brockovich (now Brockovich-Ellis) has continued her environmental work.
"Everyone thought I rode off into the sunset after the movie," she says. "I've been working firsthand on these issues."
A section of Last Call follows her as she works with residents of Midland, Texas, a town with drinking water contaminated by the same chemical compound that devastated Hinkley.
"She probably has more knowledge about water pollution than anyone in the country," Yu says, adding that her colorful manner makes for compelling viewing.
"If my face can help raise awareness, I'd be honored," Brokovich says. "As the film points out, a world without water is going to be a world without us. We caused the problem, but here's the thing — we can fix it.
"If we straighten up, we can change the collision course we are on. Because we can see it coming."
To find out more about Earth messaging 2012 and watch video clips, visit: http://www.usatoday.com/life /movies/news/story/2012-04-18/earth-day-themes-come-to-movie-theaters/54367488/1.