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SEASONS (2015) (DVD)

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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
Trailer
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.

AMAZONIA (DVD)

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amazoniacoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
2013, 83 min., Color
Lionsgate
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

To describe Amazonia (2013) as a Brazilian-French documentary is to make it seem tedious and dry, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. This live-action nature film is a wonderful choice for family movie night, for a number of reasons.

#1—Amazonia educates while it entertains. Viewers learn all sorts of things about the Amazon rainforest from a script that juggles cuteness and factuality with amazing adroitness. Martin Sheen provides the voiceover, but as Disney did with Perri and a number of other True-Life Adventures,
director Thierry Ragobert opted to combine nature photography with a fictional storyline. In this case, a born-in-captivity capuchin monkey named Saï (pronounced “psy”) finds himself flying out of Rio across the Amazon jungle. When the plane crashes, he’s left on his own to learn how to live in amazoniascreen1the wild for the first time in his life. We’re so focused on the cute little guy and his adventure that the voiceover lessons about the Amazon seem like fun facts rather than pedantic distractions. You’re glad you learned that there are over 2 million species of insects in the Amazon, for example, or that the rainforest provides a full 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen. You get the idea of how important it is to preserve the Amazon, and yet Ragobert doesn’t hit you over the head with an environmentalist message. It’s all about a monkey and his fascinating adventure.

#2—My daughter dislikes nature films for one simple reason: “They’re sad,” she says. That whole survival-of-the-fittest thing is depressing to her and
often frightening to other children. Amazonia is unique in that there is only one instance of a predator snatching prey, and since it was another monkey you find yourself less traumatized than you are relieved it wasn’t Saï. Though Amazonia is all about survival, it’s mostly upbeat. It’s the gentlest and most fun nature film I’ve seen, in fact. Even when Saï comes across an anaconda that could swallow him whole, the confrontation is quickly ended, but in a positive way. Same with every obstacle or danger the little guy faces along the way. Only when, starving, he eats some mushrooms and Ragobert gives us his version of “Pink Elephants on Parade” does the tone change briefly weird. Otherwise it’s all lightweight adventure and fun lessons learned about the Amazon.

amazoniascreen2#3—It turns out that Disney and BBC haven’t cornered the market on nature photography after all. Gustavo Hadba and Manuel Teran do a wonderful job of shooting in the rainforest and capturing all sorts of creatures in the process. Aerial shots and sequences involving a harpy eagle and jaguar on the hunt are especially impressive, but there are also wonderful close-ups of such creatures as frogs and snails and sloths. Did you know that sloths are good swimmers? We see them doing their thing thanks to underwater cameras, as we do pink river dolphins at play.

#4—Amazonia manages to sustain some credible tension despite the fact that it’s pretty lightweight as a nature film. There isn’t a lot of violence here, or predators tearing prey apart as you’d likely see elsewhere. Yet, I have to admit that I found myself in a state of tension a number of times. That’s a testament to the script, editing, and direction. The filmmakers have really woven together a compelling narrative with documentary footage and voiceover information.

All of which makes me convinced that Amazonia would make for a great first nature film to introduce children to, and even those who don’t respond well to the survival-of-the-fittest world of nature films will find this a welcome change of pace. I have only one complaint: it would have been great to get this in HD.

ISLAND OF LEMURS: MADAGASCAR (Blu-ray combo)

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IslandofLemurscoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes
2014, 39 min., Color
Rated G
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray version, DVD, Digital HD
Bonus features: B-
Trailer/Amazon link

Island of Lemurs: Madagascar is a nature film made for IMAX theaters, not for a PBS viewership—meaning it’s geared for a popular audience rather than one looking to learn every detail they can about animals and their environment.

IMAX movies are typically experiences—movies shot in higher definition on 70mm film that can then be shown on screens way larger than anything you’d see in a standard movie theater, and with no loss of detail if you sit in the front rows. Shots have tended toward the dramatic—aerial panoramas, whales breeching, fires blazing out of control, and wilderness adventures—with early short films including The Eruption of Mount St. Helens!, Fires of Kuwait, and Alaska: Spirit of the Wild. So it’s somewhat of a deviation for a less naturally dramatic nature film like Island of Lemurs: Madagascar to get the IMAX treatment.

Featured primatologist Patricia Wright worked tirelessly to establish a 107,000-acre national park on the island of Madagascar to protect the 12 species of lemurs that live there. Maybe she has connections (or fans) in high places, because there isn’t a better way to raise awareness of a cause than with a 3D IMAX movie.

Wright and her work are showcased in Island of Lemurs, but the stars are, of course, the lemurs themselves. Lemurs tend to hop and jump a lot, using their strong hind legs, and there’s amazing footage of Sifakas, who naturally hop sideways so that it looks like they’re dancing, hopping across a beach. We also see Brown Mouse Lemurs, a little tinier and pudgier than the others, fearlessly flinging themselves from tree to tree. And we watch Indriids and their peculiar way they have of “singing.” You can look up information on these and find that their calls can be heard more than a mile away, but you won’t get that kind of specific information here. IMAX is a celebration of exotic places and phenomena, and the emphasis here is on these amazing creatures themselves.   More

DISNEYNATURE: BEARS (Blu-ray combo)

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DisneyNatureBearscoverGrade: B-
Entire family: Yes (but with a grain of salt)
2014, 78 min., Color
DisneyNature
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD Copy
Bonus features: C-
Trailer

DisneyNature: Bears is an accomplished bit of filmmaking that would have been an unqualified success were it not for narration that periodically insults the intelligence of viewers over the age of eight.

The screenplay and voiceovers are, as my teenage son said, simply “childish” in places—meaning that Bears is clearly aimed at very small children, the way an adult will make funny faces to try to make a toddler laugh. The question is, why? Why narrow your audience like that, when the subject matter has such broad appeal?

The Alaskan cinematography in Bears is breathtaking, and the sometimes extreme photography really adds both epic sweep and intimacy to our understanding of these beautiful creatures. Couple that with perfectly paced scenic construction that builds suspense as we follow a family of Alaskan brown bears from the birth of two cubs through their first year of survival and you have a nature film that’s every bit as good as what Disney produced in the past—or, for that matter, what other studios are producing now.

I suspect that director Alastair Fothergill (The Blue Planet, Earth) is still trying to find the right balance to give Disney what their audiences want: a nature film that’s not as austere as the BBC Earth productions and that has some life, some zest, some whimsy—to imbue the animals with personalities and tell their story in human terms, as the old True-Life Adventures did. So far, Fothergill has done that most successfully with Chimpanzee (2012).   More