By Tom Shales
Sunday, November 7, 2010; E01
"Stunningly" beautiful? "Rapturously" beautiful? "Shockingly" beautiful? You can marry a dozen adverbs to "beautiful" and still not capture the compelling grandeur of "Great Migrations," a wondrous new jaw-dropper from the National Geographic Channel. It's movingly beautiful too, in both senses of "moving" -- physical and emotional.
Movement is the theme, obviously enough, and the often amazing footage captures animals in motion -- running, flying, fluttering, pouncing and, of course, chasing other animals. There are perhaps more scenes of animals dining out on their favorite species than are appropriate for small children, but otherwise the available audience seems universal -- and in fact, "Nat Geo," as it likes to be called, estimates that the Nov. 7 premiere will be accessible in 330 million homes worldwide.
Four hour-long chapters air on Sundays in November (with three supplemental hours airing on other dates), all keyed to the theme of creatures who live "lives of perpetual motion," and filled with sometimes joyous, sometimes traumatic scenes of animals on the move -- whether sky-blackening mobs of batlike "red flying foxes" in Australia or the tremendous and bloody head-bashings of two sumo-wrestling male elephant seals, both having claims on the same female (and a pretty thing she must be) in the Falkland Islands.
And perhaps least violent yet most captivating of all: the delicate and dizzying ascent of a zillion monarch butterflies taking off from Mexico for a trip through North America and back again, knowing not why.
They "just do it." But they don't need no stinkin' Nikes.
Any nature film made these days -- especially a state-of-the-art (and what an art!) undertaking like "Great Migrations" -- has to be compared with two especially notable modern classics from the BBC, "Planet Earth" and "Life." And though it may sound impossible, "Migrations" is actually superior to those multi-part films in certain important details: the narration and the musical score. Anton Sanko's music lurks hauntingly in the background most of the time, but it occasionally comes forward on the soundtrack to make poetic or frenetic or rhapsodic sights on the screen even more so.
Alec Baldwin handles the narration for "Migrations" and does a superb job. His voice can be lulling and whispery, but he uses it here in a way that complements the visuals and doesn't call undue attention to itself. The BBC documentaries leave England with expert narrations by David Attenborough on their soundtracks, but for American consumption, Attenborough's narration was replaced by Sigourney Weaver on "Planet Earth" and Oprah Winfrey on "Life." Neither seemed right for the job. But Baldwin, though over-exposed these days, certainly does.
Sanko's music will get unusual emphasis in a kind of epilogue to the series that Nat Geo will air on Saturday, Nov. 20, at 8 p.m. "Rhythm of Life" combines nature footage with original music for a sound-and-light show that has no narration -- a pretty brilliant idea, which the producers call a "visual concert" and which they promise will be shown with "limited commercial interruption." Commercial interruptions on the four main chapters will not be limited (each "hour" clocks in at 50 minutes), but four classy sponsors have been lined up and the breaks should be relatively unobtrusive.
The arrival of the large, flat-screen television in the American home has meant new life for the nature documentary and also meant that the medium will be worthy of the message for viewers who are nicely equipped, as they say in the car ads. Preview copies of "Migrations" were viewed on a Blu-ray disc player (which supposedly upgrades regular DVDs somewhat, though not to Blu-ray levels) and a 60-inch LCD Sony screen. Much more expensive and elaborate equipment is available, but it's hard to imagine how the picture could look better -- only bigger.
Throughout, the producers provide an amazing array of striking sights and also play ingeniously with time, slowing down some movements, speeding up others, using time-lapse and micro photography to obtain truly stunning and intimate pictures of creatures great, small and otherwise. In Africa, zebras and wildebeests struggle to escape chomping crocodile jaws in slow motion, while on "a tiny island in the Indian Ocean," giant red crabs "the size of dinner plates" are speeded up as they make their funny, clickity ways to the sea, there to reproduce before retreating to land again.
The law of the jungle, or the plain, or the glacier, is "move or die," Baldwin says, and some of the movements are virtually balletic, even if born of the very primal urges to survive or reproduce or both. A relatively tiny baby calf pops out of its mother in the segment on wildebeests and immediately must face, on skinny and trembling legs, a world of threats and dangers, none of them malicious, or to be taken personally, but instead tied to the survival of some other species.
From the individual tininess of army ants who tear a mean path through Costa Rica, Sunday night's opening chapter jumps to some of the largest creatures on the planet, 50-ton sperm whales who may travel a million nautical miles in a lifetime and who have, among other things, "the biggest brains on Earth." Even sights we may have seen in other nature documentaries seem more astounding as photographed for this one: the everyday miracle of a yucky larva wrapping itself up in a self-produced cocoon and over a two-week period (condensed to mere seconds) eating its nest and emerging a brilliantly colored monarch butterfly. It's the oldest trick in the book; why is it still so awe-inspiring?
The narration is mercifully free of hyperbole and "look-at-this" ballyhoo. Whether revealing the comical dance of young male ostriches, zooming in on a praying mantis heartlessly devouring a toxic butterfly, or watching as rockhopper penguins compulsively and relentlessly storm a beach not far from the South Pole -- mainly because the little darlings can't mate at sea -- "Great Migrations" lets us be amazed rather than telling us to be, and the amazement quotient is, yes, amazingly high.
It's hard not to get lost now and then in one's own thoughts and, especially, questions -- questions about all this life going on all the time, and about the instincts that drive animals to travel mile after perilous mile to fulfill genetic destiny, taking cues from such mysterious sources as Earth's own deep vibrations. That's how the whales get what might be called their marching orders; they truly are one with the planet.
After weeks of listening to words, words and more words -- the thousands of words that inevitably accompany political campaigns -- and of being coaxed and entreated and begged to follow this or that course of action and vote for this or that candidate, the purity and naturalism of "Great Migrations" seem especially refreshing. Animal rituals, even the silly-looking ones, seem so fundamental and organic compared with the human kind.
Life is boiled down to essentials and lived in parts of the world that have so far escaped civilization -- except, of course, for occasional visits by nature photographers. For "Great Migrations," they have done great work.
Great Migrations: (two hours) debuts Sunday on National Geographic Channel at 8 p.m. Additional segments air Tuesday, Nov. 9, at 10; Sunday, Nov. 14, at 8, 9 and 10; and Saturday, Nov. 20, at 8.