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Discovery's 'Life' will make you wild about animals

"Life" is an amazing spectacle.

That's not a philosophical statement but a restrained assessment of Discovery Channel's 11-part series, premiering Sunday at 8 p.m. Done with the BBC and narrated by Oprah Winfrey, the series took more than four years to make, as camera operators on every continent shot nearly 3,000 hours of footage.

Even viewers who don't usually watch nature documentaries will get drawn into the drama of a newborn elephant mired in mud, a strawberry poison arrow frog climbing for hours to make a safe nursery for her tadpoles, and Komodo dragons slowly taking down a water buffalo.

It's impossible to watch colonies of grass-cutter ants in Argentina without thinking of a well-oiled agricultural collective. Millions of ants cut stalks of grass, then haul them underground to use as fertilizer for their food, a fungus. "I hope people will admire them for the same reasons, the sort of things they admire in people," says Mike Gunton, the executive producer for the BBC. "They show compassion, heroism and ingenuity, but also they have this extraordinary will to look after themselves and their own."

It's a natural assumption to think little could be left unreported after Discovery and BBC's award-winning 2007 series "Planet Earth."

" 'Planet Earth' was more about physical place; this is truly about the animals," says Clark Bunting, Discovery's president and general manager. "This is their story. In 'Earth,' you had the amazing sweeping vistas. This is a more intimate portrait, the true stories of life and death, up close and personal. It really shows you behaviors, births and deaths."

Eleven hours make for a whole lot of antennae, fur and wings, but certain moments linger. Gunton, a 25-year veteran of nature documentaries, says he was thrilled to capture the humpback whales doing what's called a heat run.

The 40-ton males fight each other to get at the female, and after an astounding amount of splashing, the whales disappear into the deep. No one has yet been able to see them mating, and one wants to cheer for the whales achieving a level of privacy that eludes reality show contestants.

Bunting, who's also been at this for 25 years, says the bottlenose sea dolphins catching their dinner between the mainland and the Florida Keys continue to floor him. One furiously beats its tail, stirring up a ring of mud. Startled fish jump out of the water and into the waiting mouths of other dolphins.

"It's one of those moments where your jaw is literally on the floor," Bunting says. "You have that moment and think, 'Would I be able to figure it out?' Nah, probably not."

This series takes us inside habitats, often to places cameras have never been. To get there requires tremendous planning, difficult travel and saintly patience.

Barrie Britton spent nearly a month to film the Vogelkop bowerbird mating, which takes a nanosecond. No comment on the male bird's technique, but the fun in this segment is the courting as the males decorate their homes. One bird finds colorful leaves, while another decides to go monochromatic; unfortunately, he picks live beetles, which aren't inclined to pose as ornaments.

"These bowers are the most amazing things," Britton says. "They make these little thatched cottages that look as if they were made by goblins."

Britton says it was worth it to become the first to chronicle the birds mating. It took a week to get to West Irian Jaya, the western half of New Guinea. He flew into Jakarta, then to Manokwari. The crew drove three hours along the coast to pick up 40 porters, who hauled equipment 6,000 feet through a rain forest, a river and into the mountains. Once there, Britton settled into a bird blind for 12-hour days, listening to Bristol soccer games on a service radio.

Though all of the series is exquisitely shot and well written, some episodes, just by dint of the subject, are more captivating. Insects, with their busy communities, make for better television than plants. Still, "Life," which ran in the U.K. last fall, was so popular that 56 percent of the population watched at least 15 minutes of the show, Gunton says.

The cycle of 'Life' from the beginning

Here's a rundown of "Life." (All shows air 8-10 p.m. Sundays through April 18 on Discovery.)

MARCH 21

"Challenges of Life" is the series' overview, showing how all creatures exist to further their species. "Reptiles and Amphibians" has two of the most memorable scenes: a chameleon snaring insects with its precise and astoundingly long tongue, and the lumbering Komodo dragons poisoning a water buffalo. It takes three weeks to succumb, and watching this feels like a glimpse into a prehistoric era.

MARCH 28

"Mammals," in which 10 million fruit bats, the largest bat species, descend on a swamp in Zambia. In "Fish," the Japanese skipper fish looks like the first step in the evolutionary chain.

APRIL 4

"Birds" features the avian decorators, and "Creatures of the Deep" reminds us that 98 percent of all species are invertebrates.

APRIL 11

"Hunters and Hunted," which paints a mesmerizing picture of an Ethiopian red wolf chasing its prey. "Insects" follows with a sobering view of just how outnumbered humans are.

APRIL 18

Segments include "Plants," "Primates" and "Making of Life." In the behind-the-scenes finale, the photographer, who gets alarmingly close to the Komodo dragons, looks for his guide, who is supposed to be protecting him. The man is, quite understandably, cowering up in a tree. -Zap2it

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