There is a scene in the opening episode of National Geographic’s new “Great Migrations” series that will make you cringe.
A young wildebeest, about to complete the most dangerous part of its epic 1,800 mile journey across East Africa, is caught by a crocodile — it’s hind-legs being dragged backwards into the water as it cries for its mother waiting at the edge.
And then, it’s pulled under. Silence.
It’s chilling to watch — but it’s also classic National Geographic. Raw, uncensored life and death captured through the lens of a camera behind which some filmmaker was probably grimacing at the unfolding scene well before you. It’s what sets the network apart from more tame nature docs like Discovery’s “Planet Earth” and “LIFE” — and it’s also why “Great Migrations” is a bold and welcome addition to the genre.
If you haven’t already guessed, the seven-part series documents the epic migrations undertaken by species every year around the world. Beyond wildebeests, you’ll see devilish army ants in Costa Rica, great white sharks in Mexican waters, zebras in Tanzania, elephants in Mali and two dozen other stories of life and death marches across the planet.
It’s the first National Geographic wildlife film every to be filmed in native high-definition — which, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to experience due to some ordinary review DVDs. It should be noted, however, that even standard definition was stunning on my television; hinting at the pumped-up visuals to come over HD on cable and with an eventual release on Blu-ray.
Each episode focuses on a theme and covers three to four species and their migrations. Since the producers only have an hour to work with, the storyline can sometimes feel a bit fragmented as you jump from one creature to another; pulled out of something gripping like wildebeests crossing a croc-infested river to butterflies riding wind currents on their 2,000 mile journey across North America. But you’re just as quickly invested in each animal’s storyline — and the carousel-approach becomes less distracting as the series progresses.
Yet another wise move by NatGeo was making sure the narration by actor Alec Baldwin served to compliment the visuals and drama onscreen, rather than distract. You won’t hear any “Watch out!” or “Uh Oh!” exclamations so annoyingly present on Discovery’s “LIFE” (narrated terribly by Oprah). In fact, Baldwin (better known as the narrator for the “Thomas the Tank Engine” series) is excellent and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s asked to helm future series.
And yes, images of Baldwin’s character from “30 Rock” kept popping into my head. It wasn’t hard to imagine Jack Donaghy in front of a mic with a scotch in his hand.
Over the week that I’ve had “Great Migrations”, everyone from my little two-year-old to my in-laws has watched at least one episode. Remarks of “How’d they get that shot?!” to the standard “Wows” and “Whoas” were all common. But more telling was the silence as everyone took in scenes of animals great and small making treks — and sometimes taking suicidal risks — that seem physically impossible through our eyes. Yes, death plays a part in these struggles — but there’s also a lot of love and emotion too. I dare you to try and not tear up during a rare glimpse at an elephant’s funeral. Arrogant is the fool who believes that only humans have the ability to experience loss and love.
National Geographic should be proud of the mini-series they’ve created. Not only is it an excellent addition to a genre with classics like “Planet Earth” and “LIFE”, but it also sets itself apart with it’s raw and visually-powerful storytelling. Earth and the creatures that inhabit it offer a stage unlike any other — and we should be thankful for documentaries like this one for drawing back the curtain and helping us appreciate all the players.