There are cute parts in “Our Planet.” Penguins waddle through narrow paths carved in the snow by their happy feet. Bright, big-eyed frogs crawl over vines in slo-mo, as if transported from a Pixar movie. Giant, blubbery walruses sunbathe in enormous, island-covering herds while honking at one another when someone disturbs their slumber.
But those moments aren’t what you’ll remember. Producer Alastair Fothergill spent four years shooting in 50 countries with more than 600 crew members, and the “Planet Earth” creator isn’t interested in pussy-footing around — not anymore. Maybe his first groundbreaking nature docuseries could allude to why Earth needs to be preserved by showing its rare beauties in rich detail. And sure, its sequel would build an underlying commentary illustrating the escalating urgency of the planet’s deteriorating condition. But in Round III, he’s done with the implicit and the subtle. He’s not coaxing the audience to reach an obvious conclusion. “Our Planet” is here to say, “The planet is dying, and we’re killing it. So cut that shit out!”
How does it drive that point home? Well, those walruses dier. They die in horrific, unforgettable, gasp-inducing fashion, and you’ll watch it happen. Their deaths are a warning for the darkness underlying all of “Our Planet,” a nature docuseries no longer content with passive commentary. What may read as an explicit call to action for some — like an epilogue to “Planet Earth” — will play like a eulogy to others. This is what our beautiful planet is now, but these eight episodes emphasize just how quickly the wonders of this world are going extinct.
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Told in a very similar style to “Planet Earth” — complete with Sir David Attenborough’s narration — “Our Planet” travels to the Brazilian rainforest, Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, the icy frozen worlds near Antarctica, as well as the coastal seas, jungles, deserts, and forests of so many more territories. Each visit highlights one or more local species, including the cute and furry critters mentioned above, but even the more playful sequences are often accompanied with a darker, more haunting edge.
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One episode is framed around the hunt. Naturally, viewers aren’t rooting for the cheetah to catch up to the gazelle, or the tiger to sift through the grass (like a goddamn velociraptor) and take down the family of elk. But nature docs have prepared us for the stark reality they will usually do just that. What they haven’t prepared us for, no matter the conclusion to nature’s natural course, is that Attenborough will pop in to say, “These tigers are dying.” It doesn’t matter if they catch their prey. It doesn’t matter if they eat today or not. Overall, more than 90 percent of them have been wiped out, and that stat just goes to reiterate the larger point: We’re fucked.
Similar versions of the same message are made again and again. After getting to know a few orange-haired apes, audiences are informed 100 primates just like these die every week. Arabian leopards are the last of their kind, desperately and luckily trying to repopulate, but to what avail? Their immediate habitat and the world around it are about to be washed away. Things aren’t any better in the oceans. Bottom-trawling fishing boats ensnare the beautiful flocks of undersea swimmers who just flashed their stunning colors for the camera. These ensnared fish try to escape the massive nets, poking their heads through and getting trapped in the process, as Attenborough forecasts the fall of “the whole ocean system”
Each episode ends with the same title card, directing viewers to OurPlanet.com where they can learn how to protect the habitats and animals they just witnessed in their suffering. But it’s even more telling that each episode actually builds toward that card. It’s not tacked on as a polite reminder; the facts, figures, and narrative are meant to make each viewer feel the need to visit that site right now and do whatever possible to save the planet. It’s shares the same, overbearing sentimentality of Sarah McLachlan’s old SPCA commercial, except it’s not just pets that need your help.
This kind of blunt desperation should come as no surprise. People who’ve spent the better part of their lives studying and admiring Earth can only remain even somewhat silent on its ever-worsening state for so long. “Our Planet” offers all the stunning imagery you’ve come to expect from these documentarians, but its attitude may surprise you. Individual entries feel a little less memorable because of it. The light, comic touches that made for lovely little moments in “Planet Earth” are overshadowed, if not spoiled entirely, by the traumatic lessons put front and center.
But the new series is putting all its energy into making an impact, sacrificing entertainment value for a shot at changing a few minds. Given Netflix’s immense reach and the indisputable importance of the series’ cause, that tradeoff seems worth it. No matter how you feel about the new episodes, you’ll never forget those walruses.
“Our Planet” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.