Great Migrations premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel.
My favorite nature documentary when I was a kid was the one where the anaconda fought the crocodile. I was the kind of kid who watched a lot of these sorts of documentaries on PBS, and I also had my fair share of animal photography books. I never turned that love of learning about animals into a career as a scientist or anything of the sort (obviously), but there's still a part of me that geeks out when I see interesting video or photos of the animal kingdom.
The modern form of the nature documentary seems to be based around those geek-out moments. The BBC's 2006 series Planet Earth was the culmination of this trend, showing a broad survey of beautiful or intense moments in the natural world, with only a vague set of geographical features used to tie it all together. I'd argue that this kind of nature documentary really became popular due to its success with IMAX theaters—the wonder of the natural world is used more for entertainment than education. Science, which I'm defining loosely as analysis of cause and effect, is generally an afterthought. This isn't as bad as it sounds—a good survey of any subject should entertain while also pointing the viewer or reader towards more in-depth information. In many ways, it's better. Documentaries like Planet Earth are smooth enough that they can be viewed in a single sitting, exhausting very little mental energy. And there's some great anaconda-versus-crocodile kind of moments to inspire children and adults to learn more about their world.
Great Migrations is the National Geographic Channel's response to Planet Earth. Like its predecessor, it was filmed over several years at great cost, so comparisons are unavoidable. Unlike Planet Earth, it's more narrowly focused on the great animal migrations of its title. In both narrative and scientific terms, these are good moves. The “story” of the documentary has specific starting and ending points with migrations. And by focusing on a handful of animals that actually make major migrations, the causes and effects that make up their lives and travels are well-documented.
The first episode, “Born to Move,” demonstrates that narrative strength. It focuses on four different migrations: the white-bearded wildebeests in Africa, red crabs on Christmas Isle in the Indian Ocean, sperm whales off the Azores in the Atlantic, and the monarch butterflies of North America. The episode is structured so that it spends a few minutes on each of the four migrations, then cycles through again, so that each story is told in three chapters. When this form works, it teases out the similarities between the movements of completely different kinds of animals in fascinating fashion. When it doesn't work, you may wonder why you're watching languid sperm whale footage just when the wildebeest section was getting interesting.
Imbalance between the different animal subjects is the closest thing to a flaw in Great Migrations' structure. Each of the animals in the first episode has something that makes their portion interesting, but that interest isn't as equal as the format would imply. The footage of sperm whales, especially when they do the whale equivalent of cuddling, is magnificent and beautiful. But their “migration” is only implied through narration and cool CGI map effects. Almost all of the video footage is of them meeting up at the Azores.
The butterflies have similar issues. Their migration, taking place over four generations as they fly up from Mexico to Canada and then back again, is fascinating on paper. There is some superb footage of them emerging from hibernation in Mexico by the thousands, and watching them flap their wings in super-slow motion is breathtaking. However, their migration is implied, more than shown, and even that implication is presented oddly, using dubious film trickery. The focus on single areas with narration used to imply the “great migration” of the animal makes me wonder if the National Geographic Channel gathered the footage first, then added the “Great Migration” conceit when they realized that it could unify their best footage.
The migrations that are caught on film, giving the appearance of movement, are riveting television. The red crab moves off its island into the ocean en masse once a year for breeding purposes, and its bright coloring combines with the interesting terrain of the island for some fascinating video. When the horde of millions of baby crabs sweeps back up the island, it's somewhere between creepy and astounding. Even more impressive are the close-up shots of the crabs during the migration. An attack of predatory yellow crazy ants shows the ants squirting acid into a crab's eyes, then depicts them taking the crab down and breaking it open for its meat. When the female crabs try to release their eggs into the tides that sweep them back and forth, a camera somehow manages to get swept back and forth with them while staying focused.
As cool as the crabs are, the wildebeest footage steals the show. Their trek through the plains of the Serengeti offers the most drama in "Born to Move." In addition to the stirring shots of thousands of the animals trampling the plains, Great Migrations also casually mentions that five out of six calves won't survive the year, as it shows a mother giving birth. It then proceeds to show how the young get killed: a cheetah here, starvation and exhaustion there, and, in the best scenes of the episode, via a river crossing of thousands of wildebeests trying to navigate past dozens of crocodiles.
The narration is somewhat understated during these dramatic scenes, which helps to increase their impact. The first episode of Great Migrations has some pretty major problems with its writing. It's far too over-the-top in some sections:
“Like the crabs, creatures around the globe are moving to the music of the spheres. They register the sun, the moon, and the Earth's magnetic field, and they move at their bidding. Even the navigational feats of the most delicate of creatures beggar the imagination and confound our understanding.”
At other times, the narrator uses “they” or “it” without a clear reference, or makes an entirely repetitive claim. The flowery language is toned down somewhat in the second episode, leading me to believe that it was deliberately and mistakenly pumped up for the premiere episode. There are also a few too many unfortunate personifications of animals, like in the second episode, when albatrosses nuzzling each other after being away from their mates are described as "renewing their vows."
The narrator, by the way, is Alec Baldwin, whose voice is perfectly adequate for narration, but whose celebrity may add some extra layers of entertainment. If you don't crack wise when he describes an elephant seal as “four tons of sexual aggression,” then you're a more restrained riffer than I.
The increased focus on specific animals and their movements does allow for a bit more science to filter through Great Migrations, but nobody's going to mistake it for a rerun of Nature. More interestingly, the vague, apolitical references to “caring” about the earth from Planet Earth are replaced by more specific references to the impact of humans on the ecosystem. The second episode describes the near-extinction of the kob deer of Sudan due to the civil war encroaching on their territory. The promotional materials also mention the challenges of a group of walruses who travel to northeast Russia looking for ice only to discover that there's no ice. On the other hand, Great Migrations doesn't often get into the root causes of great masses of animals moving due to changes in the ecosystem (sometimes human-inspired, sometimes not). There's often an explosion of population when habitats are altered, causing impressive mass migrations due to unsustainable population growth.
But that's a minor quibble compared to the overall quality of Great Migrations. Yes, the voiceover can be a little excessive, and the animals that you're interested in may vary. Yet it succeeds in its core goal. Great Migrations is a wonderful visual document of some of the most impressive events and creatures in the natural world.
- “'Cause the good news is: You're dead. The bad news is: You've got, all of you've got just one week to regain not die starting with tonight. Starting with tonight's migration. Oh? Have I got your attention now? Good. 'Cause we're adding a little something to this month's breeding contest. As you all know, first prize is a million eggs carrying your genetic code, released into the ocean. Anyone wanna see second prize? Second prize is the dead bodies of your fellows to cannibalize. Third prize is you're dead.”
- No lion cubs are depicted as needing rescue from the trampling hordes of the wildebeests.
- The second episode doesn't have as many great visuals as the first, but I think it's more coherent overall. Not a huge difference, though, and I rather doubt that the quality is going to vary tremendously over the course of the series.