‘Great Migrations’ is moving on many levels

A white-bearded wildebeest herd on the move in Africa, part of National Geographic Channel’s “Great Migrations.’’ A white-bearded wildebeest herd on the move in Africa, part of National Geographic Channel’s “Great Migrations.’’ (National Geographic Channel)
By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / November 6, 2010

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To most people, movement is a utilitarian part of life — the bus ride to school and the commute to work are filler, not the main event. Migration is more indulgence than necessity; the tropical vacation in the dead of winter is never a matter of survival.

But for much of the rest of the animal world, movement is life. That simple but important fact drives the visually stunning series “Great Migrations,’’ which debuts tomorrow on the National Geographic Channel. The seven-hour documentary is a transporting look at the harried and dangerous lives of critters, from scuttling red crabs that travel miles to launch their eggs into the Indian Ocean, to wildebeests that brave crocodile-infested waters as they follow the rains. Alec Baldwin narrates, casting these journeys in stark terms from the very first scene: “They are born to move. To move — or die.’’

The drama isn’t just in the narration; the series teems with surprisingly intimate scenes taken from life on the run on land, sea, or sky. A young wildebeest bleats plaintively as a crocodile slowly pulls the doomed animal underwater; a mother walrus gently guides her pup between her flippers in a tender swimming lesson. Baldwin’s narration never gets very technical, but also isn’t overbearing or too cute — and, at times, the suggestive comedy in his voice, when he says the words “yellow crazy ants’’ or Johnny Rook (the popular name for the Striated Caracara, a bird of prey), makes it hard not to think of his alter-ego, Jack Donaghy, on “30 Rock.’’

Animals’ stories are told through meticulously shot scenes that bring viewers into crab burrows, ominously close to the swarming, living architecture of an ant colony, and eye level with a shark. Stitched together in overlapping vignettes, these stories about animals’ need to breed, feed, or survive, can begin to feel like a surfeit of evidence to prove an obvious point: Animals must move. But the bigger idea holding the show together — the idea that the natural world is in a big, urgent, interconnected rush that we barely notice — is most striking from the sheer scale of the human effort needed to create the thread of each story.

Taken together, “Great Migrations’’ is a sweeping highlights reel — a SportsCenter of migration. Boiled down from three years of work that took 400,000 miles of traveling, and hundreds of hours filmed from helicopters, shark cages, and hanging in trees, what begins to stand out is not the individual vignettes about each animal’s race to survive, but just how much human time it takes to get even a glimpse of these migrations.

For many people, just seeing the drama of each story line unfold will be enough — elephants touch and sniff the desiccated bones of a calf that died, female walruses find no ice at their normal summer grounds and must crowd onto a beach piled dangerously with males. In startlingly close-up but routine fashion, the first four episodes depict the drama of animal life in interwoven stories, focusing on how mating, food, and chasing prey — or being chased — shapes animals’ lives.

But the “Behind the Scenes’’ episode reveals the human effort that went into this series. One cameraman spends long days sitting to get a shot of a cheetah hunting, losing an opportunity when the cheetah’s cubs take shelter under the truck. Another falls into the water trying to attach a camera to the dorsal fin of a great white shark.

The sheer amount of movement, effort, boredom, risk, delight, and sadness that humans experience trying to capture the drama and beauty of these movements gives a glimpse into the waiting, hunger, crowding, and risk-taking of animal life.

The series is light on science, cordoning it off into its own episode. The series is animated mostly by the perfectly legitimate reason of invoking sheer wonder, but the scientific episode gives a fascinating glimpse of what scientists still have to learn from these creatures. A device that can survive deep dives provides insight into how and where elephant seals swim, with techniques that are remarkably analogous to the ways birds conserve energy during flight. Another researcher uses computer modeling to understand the dynamics of the herd — how, collectively, the herd behaves like a “superorganism,’’ allowing wildebeests to evade predators.

It would be nice if both pieces — the human effort and the science — could be more seamlessly integrated into the show. But ultimately, the wow factor comes from the visual splendor of the series. This is, after all, National Geographic.

“From the earliest days, we visualized that people who watched our series might wake up the next day and gaze across a field, over the sea, or up to the sky with a new reaction,’’ David Hamlin, the producer of the series, wrote in the coffee-table book that accompanies the series. “If they saw a flurry of migrating creatures, they wouldn’t simply pause and say, ‘Wow, isn’t that beautiful!’ Instead, they’d stop and say, ‘Wow, I’m rooting for you . . .’ ’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at


On: National Geographic Channel

Time: Sunday, 8 p.m. (series continues Nov. 14 and Nov. 21)