seasonsGrade: B+/B
Entire family: No
2015, 96 min., Color
Music Box Films
Rated PG for thematic elements and related images
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: French Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B
Amazon link

Some people watch nature documentaries to learn about animals: their names, diets, habits, range, and habitats. But if it’s detailed knowledge you seek, you won’t find it in Seasons, a 2015 nature film from directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud (Winged Migration, Disney’s Oceans). Seasons is more of an art-house film than it is an informational documentary, a lyric pro-environmental political statement rather than matter-of-factual nature guide.

“The Golden Age of the forest is over,” a voiceover announces, and it doesn’t require much reading between the lines to understand that humans are responsible for the decline . . . and possible eventual extinction of the deep forest and all its inhabitants, who keep getting pushed more and more into unfamiliar, less hospitable habitats.

Seasons is a film that relies more on nature than narration to tell its story, and that’s good—since a French-language voiceover with English subtitles can be daunting for young viewers. Then again, given some of the footage, we’re probably talking about a film that’s suitable for age 10 and older anyway.

Since some animals are pursued and killed by predators—albeit in a manner that shows the least amount of graphic violence possible—you never really know which ones will survive the chase seasonsscreen2and which ones won’t. It might traumatize horse lovers, for example, to see a feral herd chased by a pack of wolves and one horse cornered, especially since later we see how close those same wolves come to the perimeter of a human campground at night. Lovers of all things cute and cuddly will hold their collective breath as a Eurasian lynx tries to catch and eat the bounciest, slipperiest rodent on the planet, and cringe or avert their eyes when an owl swoops in on a cute hedgehog after the little guy gives away his position in the dark by chuffing in an attempt to dislodge a mosquito from his face. It’s the small things that sometimes matter most, and the two Jacques capture plenty of engrossing footage of such moments—some of which I haven’t seen before.

I’ve seen a ton of baby birds being fed by their moms, but with big spiders and recognizable insects? Not so much. I’ve seen plenty of birds still in the nest flapping their wings, but when different species are all shown doing the same thing, it starts to make sense that they’re trying to master “lift off” before they attempt their first flight. Though shots of the wolfpack and feral boars are pretty impressive, the best shots are actually the subtlest. In fact, this film’s strength is probably the sheer number of frames that are so artistic that they would make for one terrific nature calendar or series of blown-up photographic prints. In fall, for example, we’ve all seen leaves drop en masse, but how often do we get a ground-level shot of one leaf landing on the head of a tiny frog? And see that little guy’s reaction?

seasonsscreen1If your child is a nature lover, there’s a lot of great footage here to appreciate, though it does come as a shock to see humans enter this forest documentary around the 54-minute mark and then pop up several times afterwards. What’s more, the humans aren’t contemporary—they’re at first prehistoric, then time fast-forwarding takes us through the middle ages as well. Count me among those who prefer the silence of the first hour of film—no professorial voiceover, no barrage of facts, no spoken narrative, no attempt to make political statements via juxtaposition of images, just immersive footage of nature for viewers to absorb and interpret on their own. Watching this first hour reminded me of the cathedral-like silence of the forest when cross-country skiing and the only sound is the gentle swoosh of movement.

Which is to say, the first part of the film is superior to the rest, even if the political message is as subtly filmed as the predator kills. But like the deer whose head bobs and who we can hear bleating before it disappears behind a snowy ridge, the message is clear. It’s somewhat reassuring to know that nothing was staged so that animals were put in jeopardy and that “no animals were harmed” during the making of the movie. But while the lyric first portion is the film’s chief strength, the downside is that if you see an animal—an interesting bird diving in and out of a stream, say— and you wonder what it is, this film doesn’t tell you. You have to look it up on your own. Some parents will think that’s not a bad idea. Why force-feed data all the time? Let children look up the things that interest them the most. Just remember that if they are so inclined, look up European animals, as Seasons was filmed in France, Poland, and Norway.