There is something wondrous (and stomach-cringing) about watching a pack of wolves chasing wild stallions through a verdant forest, or a family of warthogs tromping through crystal-clear water, or musk oxen braving sub-freezing weather, their coats and faces caked in snow and ice.
There are plenty such scenes of majestic beauty in "Seasons," made by acclaimed French documentarists Jacques Cluzaud and Jacques Perrin. They can range one minute from closeups of scampering field mice and a troupe of hedgehogs scuttling along the ground to -- going up several scales of size -- a confrontation between two mighty Kodiac bears.
These images of pristine nature are worth the price of admission alone, and may remain long after the lights go out. That's true even though as a film, rather than a collection of extraordinary images, "Seasons" can at times feel surprisingly flat, with some scenes appearing a bit contrived.
Cluzaud and Perrin explored the world of migrating birds in "Winged Migration," in 2003, and undersea life in "Oceans" in 2009. Here, they and a team of cinematographers set up in national parks and animal reserves to show nature unfolding in Romania, Poland, Norway, Holland and Scotland. A nearly $40 million budget allowed for the use of drones and other new technologies, making it possible to get breathtakingly close to the wildlife depicted.
The seasons come into play, but they don't serve as the film's organizing principle. Human encroachment does. The film's premise is that a golden age of forests was greatly eroded by human contact, turning once pristine land into cities and countrysides that pushed wildlife further and further into remote areas. The scenes of wild beasts wandering through European forests after the last Ice Age gives way to hunter-gatherers, and Medieval farmers, and later to urbanization and the destructive power of 20th-century wars. Luckily, the few scenes with humans show them in the margins, and, in the context of the film, are mercifully brief.
The film's narration and soundtrack are unobtrusive, but also inconsequential. The lack of a stronger narrative -- there's a reason why those Disney nature films worked so well -- and the scattershot filming choices after awhile start to erode interest. What feels like a tacked-on message at the end, suggesting wildlife remains resistant to the march of Man, isn't particularly believable even if we wish it were so.
Ah, but then there are those remarkable scenes of wildlife in lush forests that seem impossible to have been captured by humans.
The scene with the pack of wolves chasing the stallions through the woods, and then isolating one that's grown tired is one such sight to behold, especially after the horse rears up on its hind legs and takes the fight to them. It's in those astonishing, memorable moments where the film's beauty and power reside.
3 stars (out of 4)
Directors: Jacques Cluzaud and Jacques Perrin
Running time: 95 minutes
Rated: PG for thematic material (killings occur off-screen, except for insects)
The lowdown: Acclaimed French nature documentarists explore the world of wildlife during the golden age of forests.