In the premiere episode of the stunningly beautiful National Geographic documentary series “America the Beautiful” on Disney+, the narration of the actor Michael B. Jordan accompanies some amazing footage of a caribou mother and its newborn calf, making their way through a valley in the mountains of Alaska.
“He’s the last-born youngster of this calving season,” says Jordan in the kind of soothing, friendly voice that would have the little ones paying rapt attention in class. “It’s going to take a heroic effort for Mom to keep him safe. [The calf is just] an hour old, [and] she pushes him to get moving. They’re vulnerable alone. Way ahead, the herd offers safety in numbers.”
I’m telling you, this baby caribou with his big sad eyes and gangly little walk is just about the cutest thing you’ve ever seen — like a live-action Pixar character.
‘America the Beautiful’
But wait, what’s that on the horizon? Grizzly bears, “recently emerged from hibernation and very hungry,” says Jordan. We watch as the seemingly omnipresent yet totally unintrusive cameras capture a mama grizzly bear with three young cubs in tow, chasing down the newborn caribou as its mother looks back, helpless.
And then: Pounce!
“Some battles can’t be won,” says Jordan.
In other words, that baby caribou will never see a second sunrise.
Geeeeeez. It’s a sobering reminder that nature is awe-inspiring and filled with wonder — and also brutal and unforgiving, and the sooner you kids learn that, the more prepared you’ll be for your own journey of survival! Now, let’s catch up to the rest of the herd …
Moments of confrontation like this are sprinkled throughout the series, whether it’s a pack of wolves chasing a gang of elk, a fidgety little squirrel trying its best to ward off a “freeloading black bear” over its harvest of pine cones or an alligator eyeing a deer that has wandered a bit too close to the water, and they serve as reminders that we’re not in a Disney animated story — though not every animal makes it out of a Disney cartoon, either, come to think of it.
Even then, though, “America the Beautiful” is a celebration of the vast diversity in animal life, landscape and climate in the North American continent. Even though we’re all aware of video drone technology and tiny cameras that can be hidden deep in the woods, not to mention the incredibly skilled camera operators who can chronicle animal life on land, sea and in the air, time and again I found myself thinking: How in the world did they capture that?!?
With all six episodes debuting Monday, this is one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous nature documentary series you’ll ever see.
“Welcome to North America, the most diverse continent on Earth,” says Jordan. “The only place where you can find every landscape, from polar ice cap to baking desert and everything in between. Whatever the neighborhood, there’s a hero who can make it a home.”
In the second episode, titled “Brave New World,” we meet ecologists from American Prairie, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building a huge wildlife reserve in Montana, re-wilding the grasslands and bringing back grizzly bears, wolves and bison. We also learn about a teenage girl named Alex Weber who discovered a blanket of golf balls tumbling along the floor of the Pacific Ocean right next door to the Pebble Beach Golf Club. Turns out there were at least a million golf balls creating all sorts of environmental havoc, but with Alex leading the charge for reform, the Pebble Beach Co. now has a commitment to conduct some 200 underwater clean-ups every year.
Subsequent episodes take us back to Alaska, where we observe grizzly bears, beavers, musk oxen, sea lions and bald eagles; the Grand Canyon, where mountain lions patrol certain crevices; the coast of Baja California, where a baby gray whale has been born weighing a solid ton and will put on 200 pounds a day as its mother leads it on a 6,000-mile journey to the Arctic feeding grounds, and the Badlands of South Dakota, where it takes nine wolves to bring down a single bison.
And Griffith Park in Hollywood, home of “the world’s most famous mountain lion,” aka P-22, who somehow made it from the Santa Monica Mountains by crossing the 405 and 101 freeways, and the wetlands of the Southeast, where a mother black bear carries its two cubs, one at a time, across a swamp as an alligator watches on high alert, waiting and hoping for the mama bear to drop one of those cubs.
Spoiler alert: The bear cubs fare better than that baby caribou we briefly met at the top of this story. So it goes in “America the Beautiful.” Some creatures are more fortunate than others.
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