The bad name that Disney gave to nature documentaries in the 1960s has been erased in the past two decades by Jacques Perrin, a popular European actor (you may remember him as the adult Salvatore in Cinema Paradiso) who moved into producing. His studio Galatée Films has created some of the most astonishing documentaries of the natural world ever seen, including Microcosmos, Himalaya, Genesis, Winged Migration, and Oceans.
He also directed those last two, in collaboration with Jacques Cluzaud, as part of a trilogy that is now completed by Seasons. Moving from air and water to land, their crew of photographers spent four years around Europe’s forests compiling the footage seen here.
Because the creatures of the land are less inherently compelling than unusual birds and bizarre fish, Seasons was assembled with more of a structure than the previous two films. Beginning with a frozen landscape in which little stirs, we are asked to imagine the spread of life after the 80,000 years of winter that once covered Europe. As the land warms and life spreads, every prospect pleases, and only man is vile. (Not to get ahead of ourselves, but you can see that coming.)
Early footage of animal birth and youth predictably forms the most pleasing part of the film. A brief shot of an adorable baby fox peering at the camera makes you wonder why the crew didn’t spend more time tracking it: Have they never heard of YouTube?
But there are many animals to visit, which they do with astonishing intimacy, particularly given that the makers claim not to have used zoom lenses or other gimmicks. I don’t know whether the DVDs of their previous films containing “making of” featurettes, but a separate documentary on the working methods of these photographers would probably be every bit as engrossing as the footage itself.
Of course, many cute animals live by eating other cute animals, which can be an alarming thing to see. (It’s like watching Game of Thrones: You don’t want to get too attached to any favorites.) A scene of wolves chasing down a boar makes its point without being any more graphic than necessary, though it may still be unsettling to young children and those prone to anthropomorphizing. (A horse fares better, which is good news if you know how wolves deal with that species.)
The genuinely upsetting part of the film is the conclusion, which depicts the shrinking of the natural habitat by the encroachment of man, who regards all animals as either useful or pests and not as fellow creatures with as much right to the planet as we claim. The accomplishment of the filmmakers is such that they are entitled to do some preaching to the choir, and it’s a missed opportunity if the National Wildlife Federation or some other conservancy group doesn’t set up donation buckets at every theater where Seasons is playing: You’d have to be made of stone, or Cheetos dust, not to be moved by this.
Opens Friday at the Dipson Eastern Hills and North Park.