Judge Roman Martel completed his great migration from the refrigerator to the sofa...and National Geographic was there!
Move as Millions. Survive as one.
When I see the name "National Geographic" on a product, I have certain expectations: great photography, and excellent information about the subject leading the viewer to a better understanding and appreciation of the topic. Is Great Migrations up to the task?
The main program is split into four episodes on two discs. The third disc contains two bonus programs adding up to a 200 minute running time.
The first episode focuses on the migrations of Wildebeests in Africa, the Sperm Whale, the Monarch Butterfly in North America, and the Red Crab of Christmas Island. Episode Two talks about how breeding drives some migrations and uses the flying fox of Australia, the Kob antelope of Sudan, Army Ants of Costa Rica and then a whole set of animals found in the Falkland islands including: albatross, penguins and elephant seals.
Episode Three focuses on migrations based on seasons and moon cycles. These include zebra in Botswana, the walruses of Alaska, Pronghorn sheep in North America, the Whaleshark in the oceans of Central America, and how a single fig tree in Borneo can create a migration of many different types of birds and primates. The final episode deals with migrantions based on finding food. We follow various bird species up and down the Mississippi, Great White sharks tracking elephant seals in Mexico, an odd species of jellyfish from an island in the South Seas, and a trek with desert elephants of Mali.
The third disc covers the scientific process of tagging animals, and gathering data from these tags to find out more about migrations, and how human activity helps or hinders these creatures. We get an in-depth look at the process using elephant seals, monarch butterflies, wildebeests and elephants. The final program covers the many different camera techniques and behind the scenes adventures that befell the crews as they made this series.
Imagine my surprise when I figured out this show wasn't trying to teach me about animals, but rather show me lots of gorgeous footage of animals moving in their environment. Make no mistake here, the footage is amazing. Remove the Alec Baldwin narration, insert a new age score, and you have one heck of a screensaver.
But the words National Geographic are stamped all over this disc, and that means some actual content should be found on here. Yes, there is some of that, but only the most basic type. Say we're watching the Wildebeest segment. Well Mr. Baldwin tells us that we are looking at Wildebeasts, tells us a bit about where they are traveling and how difficult it is to get there. He might throw in a "why" the animals are traveling, but only in a simple sense (to get to better feeding grounds, or because nature's clock is ticking away).
The bulk of the narration is spent telling us what's happening on screen. You see the Wildebeests at the edge of a large river, you see crocodiles the size of SUV's floating around and you can see the tension as the Wildebeests size up how to cross. We don't need Alec Baldwin telling us these things with overly poetic language about "the jaws of death" or the "beauty and cruelty of nature." We can see it all right in front of our face.
Great Migrations does not trust its audience and seems to be saying "you're too dumb to realize that giant crocodiles blocking the only crossing at a river is going to end badly, so we'll have Alec read wretchedly written prose while our music drones on incessantly." Yeah, this irked me a bit, but only because there is so much potential here to educate and inform. Instead its wasted showing glorious nature footage ruined by inane narration and pointless dramatics.
The series construction is puzzling. Each episode deals with several animals or locales, while jumping around from story to story. The breaks are in odd places and disrupt the flow, attempting to create drama at every turn. It feels manipulative and cheapens what we're seeing. Each of the animal stories could have sustained an entire episode. But all the jumping around leads back to the fact that the creators didn't trust the audience to stay interested.
That's another issue with Great Migrations. By injecting a narrative approach, it ends up making everything seem less valid. The editing is the main culprit, but some anthropomorphizing of the animal behavior occurs as well. A little goes a long way, and I expected something more objective from National Geographic.
Folks, some of the footage on these discs is amazing stuff, captured using high definition cameras and all kinds of crazy rigs; this is a feast for the eyes. The variety of animals we see is also impressive, and chances are you'll glimpse one of your favorites. While some of the slow motion footage gets a bit exploitative, other uses are breathtaking.
Alec Baldwin gets special kudos for reading some of the ripest narration I've heard in a long time. He delivers lines (including my favorite, "the pungent smell of hope,") with skill, managing to sound like he's taking this all very seriously. Cheers to you, Mr. Baldwin, for reading that line without a hint of a smile, because I was cracking up.
The two bonus features are better than the feature itself. The first one, narrated by Peter Coyote, discusses how scientists attempt to track and tag some of the animals, which is both informative and entertaining. I was actually pulled into the quest to create a tag for a butterfly that would be small enough and light enough for the insect to still fly. This is great stuff, minus the lame poetics and redundant narration, providing beautiful footage as well as science. The second featurette brings home how much work went into making this series; something that looks so simple (capturing the great cheetah footage) took way longer than anyone would ever guess. The ingenuity, bravery, and passion we see in this program is tremendous, but it saddens me that such talent and effort was turned into something so fluffy and lifeless.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer offers amazing detail of the animals and their environments. If the series looks this good in in standard definition, I can only imagine how much better the Blu-ray appears. The audio is solid in its Dolby 5.1 mix, balancing the narration and the music well enough.
Pretty pictures are great, but they should be labeled as such. If this was a DVD declaring "Wonderful footage of great migration with silly narration and very little content," I would recommend it. But this says' National Geographic on it, and that raises expectations.
(sniff sniff) That's the pungent smell of a guilty verdict.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: National Geographic
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