Judge Jim Thomas is heading for the equator.
Baby critters and snow. It doesn't get much cuter than that, right?
The main feature, Snow Babies, tracks the first year of life for emperor penguins, polar bears, Japanese macaques, arctic foxes, and reindeer. When I lived in Pennsylvania, we had one insane winter when the temp dropped down to -40F, -70F with wind chill. There were warnings on the radio that if you went outside, any exposed skin would be frostbitten in under a minute. Needless to say, we stayed indoors.
Any baby in the wild is going to have a rough go of it, but the kids in the polar regions really have it rough, what with winter temperatures that routinely drop below what I experienced. So each animal has particular characteristics as well as specialized behaviors to maximize a baby's chance of survival. With a 60-minute runtime, it's readily apparent that this won't be an in-depth exploration. Still, it's warm and engaging, particularly since it's essentially a celebration of maternal instincts. Each animal has different ways of managing children in arctic conditions, and it's fascinating to watch, even if none of the emperor penguins ever start tap dancing.
While this title is certainly appropriate for small children, parents should know that not all the snow babies survive. While the documentary doesn't shy away from that fact, neither does it dwell on it, and there is little (if any) blood shown.
For my money, the real fun is with the two bonus features—two episodes of Polar Bear: Spy on the Ice. These episodes, which share some footage with the main feature, focus on two female polar bears just emerging from their respective maternity dens. Not only do the two 50-minute episodes go into much more detail, they also spend some time focusing on some ingenious cameras.
The problem with observing animals in the wild is that the presence of humans inevitably impacts the animal's behaviors—and polar bears are carnivores, after all. Not only that, but the Arctic is damned cold. To address both problems, Emmy award-winning filmmaker John Downer developed a special set of remote control high-definition cameras. Drift-Cam is built into a fake chunk of ice; it has wheels and a rotating camera. Snowball-Cam is built into a white ball roughly the size of a basketball. Not only is the camera self-leveling, but rotating weights within the ball allow the camera to roll itself across the landscape. Add to that a fan-propelled camera on skis (Blizzard-Cam) and a floating camera (Iceberg-Cam), and you can follow polar bears just about anywhere.
The cameras' design was sturdy enough to stand up to just about anything—except a polar bear's curiosity. As it turns out, plastics and composites are no match for a half ton of polar bear jumping up and down. Still, the shots from Snowball-Cam as a bear uses it for soccer practice are pretty entertaining.
Video is good but not exceptional. Not surprisingly, the white-on-white landscape created some contrast issues here and there. When the snow and ice isn't trying to wash out the image, details and colors are quite good. The stereo audio track is perfectly clear, doing an excellent job of presenting the various animals' calls, growls, bleats, or whatever. The main feature is in Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0, but the extras are in Dolby Digital Surround 5.1. Go figure.
The extras are a tad more gruesome than the main feature, as there are some extended scenes with bears getting possessive about a carcass or two.
It's the bonus features that are more substantive. Nevertheless, Snow Babies is a fun disc, even if you don't have kids. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Extended Scenes
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