BBC Video // 2011 // 174 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // June 1st, 2011
Madagascar reveals the extraordinary wildlife and dramatic landscapes of one of the world's most bizarre islands. It is an ambitious and intimate portrait of a fascinating but perilously fragile island -- one of the few places left on Earth where there are still wildlife mysteries waiting to be discovered.
Off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, the island of Madagascar is home of up to seventy different species of lemur, as well as a plethora of insects, lizards, and amphibians -- most found nowhere else on Earth. Madagascar is almost twice the size of Arizona, tropical along the narrow coastal plain, temperate inland and arid in the south, with a high plateau and mountains in the center. The land mass supports highly specialized flora and fauna that have evolved over sixty-five million years, until modern times, in relative isolation.
This BBC-produced wildlife documentary, narrated by David Attenborough, was filmed over a period of eighteen months. Spanning only three one-hour episodes, Madagascar is far more modest than the epic Earth series, but still delights as a fascinating document of a seldom filmed corner of the Earth.
Two episodes, "Island of Marvels" and "Lost Worlds" are on Disc One. Disc Two includes the third episode, "Land of Heat and Dust," and a pair of extra features. Each episode explores a different area of Madagascar. Lemurs are the stars of the show, found all over the island -- from the desiccated south to the tropical coasts, and the mountains between. In one area, golden bamboo lemurs subsist on a diet of cyanide-laced bamboo leaves; other lemurs cross razor-like mountaintops to reach precious pools of water; while another species deftly navigates through a forest of thorn-covered trees.
Some of the other creatures filmed include a variety of chameleons (one unfortunate species has a lifespan of only a few weeks); a giant mongoose called the fossa, the top predator of the island, which is down to an unknown number of males and only ten females; wasps that pluck developing tadpoles from leaves; and tiny hedgehog-like animals that signal one another in the dark with specialized noisemaking spines on their backs. On the flora side, there are bizarrely twisted and bloated baobab trees, and giant, insect-ingesting pitcher plants. Madagascar is a bountiful harvest for the camera lens.
Although a fertile area for wildlife photography, Madagascar is evidently a tough environment in which to film. Ten-minute clips at the end of each episode document the camera crew's difficulty in capturing images of these elusive animals without frightening them away, and the horrendous days-long rainfalls that brought production to a halt until the weather cleared. After seeing the conditions they faced, my respect for the camera crew's tenacity ratcheted up several notches.
The extras on the second disc are "Attenborough and the Giant Egg," in 1080i, and "Lemurs of Madagascar," in standard definition. "The Giant Egg" feature includes some black-and-white film of Attenborough on Madagascar in 1960, mixed in with present-day footage. It's an interesting scientific mystery story concerning the age and origin of a gigantic extinct bird whose only remains are a few fossilized bones and thousands of eggshell fragments -- a mystery that intrigued Attenborough for fifty years.
Video is very good with a few notable exceptions. Many of the wide aerial shots of forests and mountains are blurred in the foreground, and some other shots -- especially of rushing streams and rivers surrounded by forest -- are soft and much less detailed than they should have been, appearing closer to DVD quality, almost as though they had been lifted from a standard-definition video. Colors are generally excellent, bright and saturated. Greens range from chalky gray-greens on a lizard to brilliant emerald bamboo; a nice variety of browns and tans is displayed in the desert and sandy beach scenes. Reds are rich and bright, and shadow detail is generally quite good. I'm guessing that some of the soft shots -- for instance, scenes of the mountain-hopping lemurs -- are simply due to filming from a great distance with telephoto lenses, while some of the murkier sequences -- in the jungles, for example -- are caused by the contrast of dark objects (usually animals) against the bright background of the sky shining through shifting spaces in the vegetation. In other words, most of the video issues are drawbacks of the environments in which they were shot, not poor mastering. In spite of what I've read elsewhere, I did not see any evidence of obvious banding, or any majorly noticeable artifacts beyond the softness I mentioned. This is not a reference-quality video, but it easily outshines a DVD.
My biggest disappointment is with the audio. Why Dolby Digital stereo? There is plenty of room on a 50GB Blu-ray disc for an LPCM or DTS-HD MA audio track -- in stereo and surround. I'll admit, the sound is very good for Dolby. The narrator's dialogue is clear, and animal cries, wind in the trees, falling rain, and a decent if slightly generic score are all reasonably listenable, but how much more engaging the audio would have been with a crisp, high-definition soundtrack.
Technical issues aside, this is an important documentary film -- one worth owning -- because it visually captures a unique world that is rapidly disappearing. It's the same old, tired story of human encroachment on a fragile habitat, resulting in the extinction of multiple species. The thought that in another generation or less these animals will only exist on film is too unbearably sad for words. If humans are the crown of creation, they may not feel so exalted when their kingdom has become an abattoir.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080i)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 174 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated