Film Review: Seasons

The third Perrin-Cluzaud documentary on the wild kingdom is striking to look at, but is less dusted with magic.
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The magic that co-directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud wove into their widely seen, award-winning nature documentaries Winged Migration and Oceans is less spellbinding when they turn their attention to land animals in Seasons. Though their mighty filmmaking machine is again at work capturing some truly beautiful, up-close and personal shots, like a startling chase scene of wolves pursuing a pack of wild horses through a dense forest, the overall feeling is a lot less special than their groundbreaking work that flew with birds and swam with deep-sea creatures. Blame it on the proliferation of land-animal docs on television, but this is a film that excites admiration, not awe.

It’s also a lot less violent than many TV nature docs, which casually show lions taking down gazelles and killer whales snatching unwary seals off the beach. In Seasons, animals killing animals is suggested several times, but the carnage always takes place off-screen. This should boost its chances for family audiences with small kids.

The novelty here lies in the film’s historical approach and huge time frame, from Paleo times to the present day. This gives the film its overall structure and also allows room for two-legged actors to very occasionally interact with the animal stars. The humans are cleverly kept in the background and shown through the detail of their fur dress or chain mail as they gradually domesticate, exploit or kill the wild things around them and expropriate their territory.

It's the old theme of man’s destruction of natural animal habitats and our need to forge a new alliance with the animal kingdom, proposed in a moralizing sermon at the film's very end. Until then, scenes simply describe the wonders of wild beasts when they were still able to roam freely over the Earth, particularly in prehistoric days. This utterly simple approach is a hallmark of the Perrin-Cluzaud documentaries and, while it stands them in good stead, it doesn't build much excitement as the caveman discreetly appears, then disappears; hunter-gatherers in the virgin forests of Europe give way to Medieval farmers and falconers and war horses, and bombs destroy animals along with human beings. Nothing to take exception with, but it all seems a little obvious for adult viewers.

But humans are peripheral intruders on the terrestrial animals. The film's strong point is the unquestionable beauty of the imagery, filmed over a four-year period in the national parks and animal reserves of Poland, Romania, Norway, Holland and Scotland. A team of top-notch cinematographers captures the poetry, humor and drama of wildlife: the survival test posed by winter blizzards, the birth of young in the spring, the majesty of the big beasts and the funny faces of the small. Though the giant Ice Age bison is extinct, the filmmakers follow a species of mini-buffalo that is hard to identify. The philosophy of the film is to keep narration to a minimum, and no explanatory titles are used, forcing the audience to feel sensations rather than to analyze what exactly is onscreen.

At a budget approaching $40 million, the French-German co-production is able to make use of cutting-edge technology, like flying drones and high-speed scooters created especially for the film, that give the feeling of standing, or running, a few feet away from the animals. This is the real difference from standard wildlife docs, which have to make conspicuous use of telephoto lens to bring the action home. Here it is so real one begins to ponder how it was technically possible.--The Hollywood Reporter

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