There's a grand concept to Seasons, the mostly terrestrial animal-observation doc from the creators of Winged Migration and Oceans, but in practice the film, a beauty, is about animals surprising you. You'll be pleasantly engaged in observing a bird standing there after a snowfall, and then a snowbank will shudder a little until from it emerges the head of a lynx, looking just as goofy and yawning as your cat shaking off a pile of laundry. Here's another lynx, in verdant woods, standing at attention until its cub vaults into the frame and seizes its neck in a wrestle-hug of claws and fur. Here's ducklings plummeting many feet from their tree-hollow home to a dead-leaf forest floor, then immediately scooting off like scrubbing bubbles in the old commercials. Here's a billygoat, grand and fluffed-up as a parade float, breaking the silence with one mad bray.

Directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud give us marquee mammals, too, of course: There's wolf chases, wild stallions nickering at each other, bears in roaring, brush-trampling confrontation. But they're also into field mice and hedgehogs. My favorite sequence showcases all the critters who might have hung out around a forest pond tens of thousands of years ago, each introduced one shot at a time, hot on the heels of the previous. It's the animal-doc equivalent of taking in too much Slurpee too fast and suffering a freeze headache: First we see the banks, then a crane of some sort, browsing the reeds. Cut to an elk buck wading into water, licking at its surface. One long breath later a warthog ambles in the opposite direction. Then a beaver, in closeup, nibbles at some greenery, and that's followed by another glimpse of deer and then one of those can't-miss crowdpleasers, the head of that crane (or whatever), in the bottom center of the frame, seeming to regard us dead-on, then rising up on its gangly, extendable neck. And then a platoon of warthogs splashes across the shallows. The spell continues with frogs peeking from the water as warthogs snuffle for dinner in the mud — and it's broken only when the movie turns too good to be true, when it gives us something we know its cameras couldn't naturally capture, when wolves dash after warthogs into the woods for what seems like a mile, with us right beside them.

The crew captured this footage over four years, and it's entrancing enough that, for most of the film, I wasn't worrying over what was staged and what wasn't. But occasionally, as in Winged Migration, the trickery pushes the film into FX fiction, the observation of animals abandoned for the creation of dramatic sequences involving animals. Those scenes feel all wrong – they suggest other movies, their fakery all too familiar.

As for the concept, the film purports to examine tens of thousands of years of European wildlife, starting in an Ice Age and cruising through the rise of man and the continent's subsequent deforestation and pollution. Our ancestors slowly edge into the fringes of the animal action, reshaping the habitat and the relationships — one of those stagy dramatic scenes involves the domestication of dogs. As cities spring up, the big mammals light out for the mountains, and eventually the filmmakers cut from spewing smokestacks to a hellscape of dying bees. The movie starts in an ice age, as I've said, so you can guess where it's all heading, but what you'll remember from it is the vision of a plump ol' bear snoozing in a tree in the rain.

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