The last item on Judge Clark Douglas' bucket list? Being dissected and analyzed on TV by Richard Dawkins.
Uncover their evolutionary secrets!
I should have taken a closer look at Big Cats before requesting it as a review assignment. At a quick glance, it looked like a rather enjoyable affair. "A PBS documentary about lions and tigers? Sounds good to me!" I thought, as I am a sucker for their intelligent, well-produced Nature specials. Alas, Big Cats isn't part of PBS' Nature series, but rather an installment in their considerably grislier Inside Nature's Giants series. The title is alarmingly literal: in each episode, a group of experts cheerfully dissect a giant beast and examine its innards, delivering an hour of television more gruesome and blood-soaked than the average Hellraiser flick.
I realize, of course, that dissections are an important tool in helping us understand how living creatures function, but it's clear that Inside Nature's Giants isn't simply interested in the biological construction of the animals it examines. The show revels in its graphic nature, even delivering a main title sequence that depicts the flesh of assorted animals being ripped open. As such, viewers with weak stomachs are advised to move along, and viewers with strong stomachs may roll their eyes at some of the more gratuitous footage included (there's no real reason to include that shot of a tiger biting a dude's fingers off other than that IT'S FOOTAGE OF A TIGER BITING A DUDE'S FINGERS OFF!). That being said, Big Cats actually is a rather informative and absorbing special.
One of the most compelling subjects the special addresses is the mystery of the infamous roar lions and tigers frequently employ. That the noise emitted by such large cats would be louder than that emitted by, say, a bobcat or a housecat is not surprising, but scientists are still perplexed by the sheer volume the giant beasts are capable of achieving. Through the dissection of a lion, the team of scientists are able to solve this mystery once and for all ("We're making a major scientific breakthrough live on television! That never happens!" one scientist gleefully chirps).
As the dissections proceed, one thing becomes clear: lions and tigers are nearly identical creatures in many ways, so closely related that they are still capable of breeding (as evidenced by the real-life "Liger" we're introduced to). We examine every key aspect of their bodies, from the manner in which their claws operate to the unusual ways in which they employ their shoulder blades while preparing to make an attack. Between assorted breakthroughs in the laboratory, we break away for some in-depth analysis of the evolutionary origins of the species (provided by the estimable Richard Dawkins and eager field reporter Simon Watts, both of whom deliver some of the special's most intriguing insights).
The DVD transfer is quite good, meaning you'll get to see every blood-soaked organ in excellent detail. Outside the lab, there's a good deal of stock footage employed which varies dramatically in quality. The night time sequences benefit from impressive depth. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track gets the job done well enough, delivering a propulsive score with vigor and recapturing the dialogue with clarity. No supplements of any sort are included on the disc.
While it's inadvisable to watch Big Cats while eating lunch (something I made the mistake of doing), it's an engaging special that doesn't allow its sensationalist tendencies to overwhelm its genuine merit as an educational viewing experience. For those with an interest in the biological makeup of these fascinating creatures, it's worth a look.
Gory, but not guilty.
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