Once Upon a Forest (Il etait une foret): Film Review

Once Upon a Forest Film Still - H 2013

Once Upon a Forest Film Still - H 2013

The secret life of trees.

Oscar winner Luc Jacquet (“March of the Penguins”) offers up a visually exquisite exploration of the world above and below the forest canopy.

PARIS -- After soaring across the glaciers of Antarctica in his Oscar-winning hit, March of the Penguins, director Luc Jacquet pummels the depths of the world’s rain forests in his breathtakingly shot nature documentary, Once Upon a Forest (Il etait une foret).

That being said, this eye-popping expose of plant life in the jungle, as told by the famous French botanist Francis Hallé, has much less narrative and sentimental pull than Penguins, which grossed nearly $80 million when Warner Independent released it (with a new soundtrack and voiceover by Morgan Freeman) back in 2005. More akin to a classic National Geographic program, albeit with stunning photography and visual effects galore, Forest should find fans among tree huggers and nature doc aficionados, with Disney France rolling out locally in mid-November.

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Filming primarily in the Amazon jungle in Peru and the Congo rain forest in Gabon, Jacquet and DP’s Antoine Marteau and Jerome Bouvier pull out all the technical stops this time around, using an array of ultra-powerful telephoto lenses and camera-wielding drones to capture the natural settings in pristine, widescreen glory. On top of that, visual effects directors Eric Serre and Anne-Lise Koehler inlay many of the images with drawings revealing the inner workings of the flora and fauna depicted, resulting in a 78-minute visual assault that rarely lets up.

Outside the gorgeous cinematography, Forest offers up a brief outline of the theories and findings of Hallé, a widely respected scientist who’s authored a dozen books about plants -- many illustrated with his own intricate drawings, which are on ample display throughout the movie, alongside dozens of animated sequences.

Revealing the life cycles of primary and secondary forests, especially how the latter develop out of deforestation and other unnatural causes, Hallé offers up a vision of a vegetal world in a constant state of growth and renewal. While this is nothing revolutionary, Hallé goes further to demonstrate how trees display behavior that’s surprisingly similar to that of animals and humans -- including their ability to communicate with other species and defend themselves against predators.

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The latter is illustrated by an impressive sequence depicting how trees allow ants to form colonies inside their trunks, using them to fight off caterpillars and other leaf-eating insects. Another fascinating bit shows how certain species of vines can encircle a tree, growing up to forty or fifty meters and taking the shape of their host, which they destroy in the process.

Although the film is chock-full of facts, it never quite develops into a succinct narrative, with Hallé sometimes jumping from one idea to another in that way that French thinkers often do. Likewise, the voiceover (performed by Michel Papineschi) can sometimes seem a tad too preachy, reminiscent of Gallic nature documentaries like Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s Home and Nicolas Hulot’s Le syndrome du Titanic, where facts are lost amid lots of New Age-y grandstanding. (The constant, cloying music by Eric Neveux (The Attack) doesn’t help in this regard.)

Yet despite being overwrought in certain places and underdeveloped in others, Forest displays enough cinematic wizardry to sustain things for its short running time, and Jacquet never disappoints when it comes to showcasing the power of filmmaking technology in the face of nature. (Say what you want about drones, but they can provide some pretty cool aerial shots.)

To accompany the spectacular visuals, sound designers Samy Bardet (Persopolis) and Francois Fayard (Revolver) offer up a layered mix that allows every noise -- from the rush of a waterfall to the opening of a flower bulb -- to be heard loud and clear.

Opens: Wednesday, Nov. 13 (in France)

Production companies: Bonne Pioche Cinema, France 3 Cinema, Rhone-Alpes Cinema

Cast: Francis Hallé

Director, screenwriter: Luc Jacquet, based on an original idea by Francis Hallé

Producers: Yves Darondeau, Christopher Lioud, Emmanuel Priou

Executive producer: Laurence Picollec

Directors of photography: Antoine Marteau, Jerome Bouvier

Music: Eric Neveux

Editor: Stephane Mazalaigue

Visual effects: Mac Guff

Visual effects art directors: Eric Serre, Anne-Lise Koehler

Sales agent: Wild Bunch

No rating, 78 minutes