Paramount // 2011 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 27th, 2011
Learn the secrets of heavenly creatures.
I've always been fond of the manner in which nature documentaries breathlessly prepare us for something new and spectacular. These specials often start with, "Few sightings of Animal A doing so and so have ever been documented," or "Cameras have never before captured interaction between Animal B and Animal C." In this case, we're informed of how the colorful mating rituals of New Guinea's "Birds of Paradise" have never before been captured on film. So we settle in and watch attentively, eagerly awaiting the inevitable moment in which we will witness this never-before-seen wonder.
Birds of the Gods is hosted by the great David Attenborough, which is mostly an attribute but occasionally a distraction. Attenborough is charming and knowledgeable as always, and his distinguished voice has long been a perfect fit for nature documentaries. However, the central story is about a group of New Guinea scientists attempting to find these rare "Birds of Paradise" and document their mating habits. A little too frequently, Attenborough will wander away from their current exploits and recall the time many years ago in which he was in this very same place, examining some of these very same things. "Been there, done that," is perhaps not the best tone for a narrator to adapt, but then again, he was there and did that.
Save for the occasionally distracting peeks into Attenborough's past exploits (complete with grimy, grainy black-and-white footage), Birds of the Gods is a mostly absorbing special, with a few dull moments rescued by spectacular new footage of these fascinating creatures. Many of these exotic birds are quite rare, largely because they are valued by local tribes for their colorful feathers. As such, the birds have become very wary of humans and can be difficult to track down. Nonetheless, our scientists gamely trudge through the jungle, find a series of hideout spots and wait patiently for a sighting.
Over the course of the hour-long special, we're treated to a series of increasingly remarkable mating rituals (I like to think they happened in the same dramatic order in real life, but I imagine a thoughtful editor deserves credit for this). One amusing instance involves a male bird puffing himself into a giant flower of sorts and doing an elegant dance (complete with syncopated clicking noises) before suddenly leaping on top of the female from behind. In another instance, a male bird hangs upside down on a tree, vibrates and generates an otherworldly buzzing sound that's, "like nothing else in the bird kingdom." It's fascinating stuff, and the scientists seem quite grateful to have witnessed it.
Elsewhere, we're also given a brief glimpse into the human culture surrounding these birds, particularly the natives who use the feathers as an integral part of their assorted ceremonies. These moments are intriguing but a bit undercooked, as we're never really permitted to understand what these ceremonies mean or why they're being held. These compelling jubilees are only relevant to the documentary in terms of what they mean to the birds. A side note for parents considering watching this disc with their kids: there is some of the old National Geographic-style nudity during these sequences.
The hi-def transfer is gorgeous for the most part, offering superb detail and allowing us to soak in the natural beauty of New Guinea. Unfortunately, some of the most dazzling bird footage was either shot with a lesser camera or was captured from a very long distance, as some of this tends to be blurry and pixilated. It's usually still sharp enough to prevent the viewer from feeling cheated, but it's a little disappointing nonetheless. Otherwise, the doc looks great. Audio is also strong, with lots of natural sound design and an enjoyable score blend nicely with Attenborough's narration. There are no extras on the disc.
While not on the level of Attenborough's best nature documentaries, Birds of the Gods is a solid watch with a few genuinely remarkable moments. It's worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English, Descriptive)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated