LOS ANGELES – It’s been more than a decade since “Planet Earth” offered first-class seating on a breathtaking nature trip around the world. Get ready to repack your bags.
“Planet Earth II,” debuting Saturday on BBC America, may actually be an upgrade, thanks to new gizmos and even greater examples of Job-like patience from the six-hour documentary’s ace squad of filmmakers.
In the 2006 version, much of the action was captured with gyro-stabilized camera mounts on helicopters, which provided a stunning but often detached perspective. Now technology has advanced to the point where micro-cameras could be attached to drones flying right next to the action.
In one tracking shot, we watch baby iguanas scamper away from racer snakes in the Galapagos, a sequence that narrator David Attenborough calls “a near-miraculous escape.” In another, the lens is so tight as a lemur leaps from branch to branch that viewers might get airsick.
“What we’re now allowed to do is actually experience the lives of the animals,” said executive producer Mike Gunton. “We are with them.”
Another helpful new tool was the “camera trap,” which is activated by movement but goes into sleep mode after the animal has ventured off. This device came in handy in capturing footage of the snow leopards of the Himalayas, a breed harder to spot than the Abominable Snowman.
“You have to know exactly where the animal is going to be in order to frame it correctly, but if you are clear enough, you can get extraordinary shots,” said Attenborough who, at 90, still has the enthusiasm of a kid on his first camping trip.
Don’t give short shrift to good ol’ fashioned human effort.
Producers spent years plotting coverage of grasslands, jungles, deserts, islands, cities and mountains around the globe. Producer Elizabeth White voyaged nearly a week on a small yacht to get to the world’s largest colony of penguins on an active volcano 1,200 miles from the Falkland Islands. Once at these remote locations, the challenge was to “humanize” the animals, tracking their mating rituals and feeding habits as if they were plot points in a big-screen movie.
“We’re looking for things that are new, but also revisiting stories and looking for new angles on how to tell them,” White said.
Sometimes, the tinkering goes too far. Composer Hans Zimmer’s score is impressive but overused, as if the producers didn’t place enough faith in the simple jaw-dropping beauty of a river dolphin popping up in the Brazilian jungle.
The slo-mo button also gets overused in nearly every sequence, from a giraffe kicking the stuffing out of a lion to wild horses in Nevada going mane-a-mane to get a mare’s attention. And while Attenborough’s dry wit is intact, too often he plays mind reader. Either he is a living, breathing descendant of Dr. Doolittle, or he’s taking too many liberties.
So “Planet Earth II” is not the perfect getaway. But these quibbles are overshadowed by the stunning shots and the access to more wonders of the world.
Hop aboard. Every seat has a window view.