Four years in the making and 15,000 in the telling, French co-directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud’s millennia-spanning “Seasons” does for beasts of the land what the duo’s “Winged Migration” and “Oceans” did for those of the air and sea, with two notable caveats. First, while it features some of the most breathtaking nature photography this side of BBC’s “Planet Earth” miniseries, this gorgeously cinematic docu ties said footage to a leaden all-purpose eco-consciousness message that nearly spoils the otherwise timeless experience. And second, the animals and environments on offer aren’t nearly as exotic — mostly wolves and wild horses — limiting the gee-whiz factor to younger audiences than might have turned out for their internationally acclaimed earlier collaborations.
After innovating camera rigs that could soar and swim alongside their previous animal subjects, the visionary helmers thought long and hard about how best to tackle terrestrial creatures, ultimately deciding to compress the long and hard stretch between the Ice Age and the modern era into a single seasonal cycle of its own, from the first green shoots of life that emerged from the glacial thaw to the dismal grey winter modern cities have wrought. Operating on the heavy-handed premise that homo sapiens make terrible neighbors — farming, hunting or climate-changing animals out of existence — “Seasons” suggests that Europe’s forests were a primordial Eden of sorts until man came along and ruined it (and nothing sours the taste of fresh popcorn faster than such accusations).
The bipedal bad guys don’t appear for a good 40 minutes, allowing the directors to focus on retelling European history from the critters’ p.o.v., immersing themselves in intimate connection with the various species who will become the film’s recurring stars, introduced in adorable baby-animal form: There’s the vulnerable doe who licks clean her newborn faun, the beady-eyed fox pup who gazes directly into the camera, or the brood of downy ducklings making that risky first leap from a protective treetop. (“Seasons” depicts this latter stunt from an impressive range of angles, including above, below and looking out from the lofty nest itself.) A gorgeous lynx cub also makes an especially strong first impression, playfully testing its bite on its incredibly patient mother.
The earliest evidence of humans (not counting the scant voiceover heard over the pic’s opening scenes) appears in the form of an arrowhead necklace, and though actors are cast and costumed in primitive garb, they appear only on the margins at first. And yet, from the beginning, they are understood to be a threat to the animals, who are, admittedly, plenty threatening to one another. Consider the aforementioned lynx, who dispatches with Bambi once big enough to pounce, or the pack of wolves who attack anything that crosses their paths, including one another.
The “Seasons” camera crew manages to get stunningly close to these interactions, reportedly rejecting zoom lenses (though the Angenieux brand gets an opening-credit nod) in favor of actual physical proximity. That means cozying up to a pair of brawling brown bears, getting within kicking range of feral horses and using ultra-fast ATVs to race alongside actual wolf hunts. But it also keeps the bloodletting to a minimum, unless it’s humans doing the hunting, preserving a potential G rating while staying true to its ASPCA-grade claim that “no animals were harmed in the making of this film.”
The soul of any nature docu emerges in the editing, and “Seasons” is elegant if not always intuitive, following roughly the cycle of one calendar year (though winter comes and goes more than once), subdivided into one day (night dramatically falls mid-film to allow the pincushion hedgehogs and predatory owls to go about their nocturnal business), thereby providing some sort of temporal continuity for several millennia’s worth of natural history. As always, there’s a fair amount of cheating involved, particularly evident in cutaways — to a curious red squirrel shown spectating over a wolf fight, or the bear cub who seems to cover its eyes in reaction to a tussle between adults — which serve to transition between the species-agnostic roundelay, which occasionally soars above or through the treetops to follow birds and bugs.
Don’t be surprised if foreign distributors opt to overhaul the narration entirely, a la “The March of the Penguins,” rather than merely translating. After all, not all markets share the French helmers’ faith in auds’ ability to follow the film’s somewhat freeform logic, while others may want to inject a more educational dimension. Most importantly, as written, the finale serves as a reductive downer. In the film’s last act, man’s impact becomes increasingly evident, building to the image of a smoking power plant, which appears like a blight on the wildly deforested landscape. (In addition to filming in French forests, the crew traveled to Norway, Scotland, Romania and Holland to cobble together its unspoiled Euro wilderness.)
“Man has become a geological force,” the v.o. chides. “He modifies nature and the seasons.” But then so, too, do wolves, bison, deer, badgers and bears — species that are routinely culled to contain imbalances in nature. Meanwhile, a skeptic might point to Paris, glimpsed in the pic’s final minutes, as evidence of human innovation and ask what animals achieved in that same time. You don’t see them making documentaries about us, though “Seasons” ultimately suggests what such a portrait might look like.