The French nature documentary Seasons has much in common with the wildly popular Planet Earth television series, but with a more narrow focus.
Filmmakers Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud follow a specific set of animals, showing how they have adapted over different periods in our planet's history. Most of the footage is stunning, yet the film is more about observation than visual stimulation.
It starts with footage of continental Europe, as a narrator explains that this is how the planet looked before there were humans. We see animals that lived during what's described as "the golden age of the forest" - an unspoiled period before the agrarian economy permanently changed the landscape. As with their past film Winged Migration, Perrin and Cluzaud focus on birds - hawks, owls - except here they have added such four-legged mammals as wolves, bears, deer, bison, even mice. The narration becomes more minimal: Seasons invites us to watch as animals go about their routines, at least until the timeline speeds forward and humans upend the balance of life.
The narrative of Seasons follows the so-called "hockey stick" graph, a visual representation of how the planet's temperature has skyrocketed, after a long period of stability. Perrin and Cluzaud's film starts slow, suggesting an Earth at peace, eventually careening through periods of industrialization and war. (If humans appear on-screen, it is only in the background).
The directors reserve their empathy for creatures, particularly as their habitat shrinks, but they keep enough of a distance so that animals are never anthropomorphized. Some are cute - fox cubs in particular - yet the film reminds us they, like all predators, are also awesome in their pursuit of the kill.
If Seasons editorializes, it is in an evocative, subtle way. Through gorgeous cinematography and understated musical cues, Perrin and Cluzaud find a note of serenity that's notably absent from YouTube cat videos. By showing animals in all their mundane splendor, Seasons makes a case for conservation.
Three stars. Rated PG. Contains some violent imagery that may disturb young viewers. In French with subtitles. 95 minutes.