Judge Dan Mancini believes there's more to life than eating bamboo shoots and napping.
A rare, up-close look at their secret lives
Real pandas know nothing about kung fu, but you'll probably wish they did after watching this short documentary from Smithsonian Networks. Pandas in the Wild follows a team of international researchers into an untouched mountain range in the Chinese province of Shaanxi to observe the life of the world's cutest (and perhaps most slovenly) bears. The show is mildly fascinating and entirely unexciting. Despite the domino mask pattern of fur on their round faces, the bears do not fight crime; they never spring into action (that would disrupt their jam-packed schedule of lounging in trees, slowly munching on bamboo shoots); and they have no life-and-death rivalries with other large predators (with the exception of humans). Despite Smithsonian's attempts to fashion a compelling documentary, the bears pretty much come off as the pudgy slackers of the animal kingdom. They reminded me of the stoners I lived with in college, only without the bongs, televisions, and Cheetos. On the plus side, pandas have two thumbs on each hand, which is kind of cool. Maybe the international researchers should have taught one how to play an Xbox.
Pandas in the Wild kicks off with the bears' odd mating rituals. In the show's most intense sequence, two male pandas fight over a female in heat. The battle is relatively low-key, though narrator Kristen Kohn assures us that these fights can sometimes result in serious injury and even death. The victorious male then stands at the bottom of the female's tree and makes plaintive Wookiee-like noises in order to woo her. Despite the throw-down he won only moments before (thus proving his virility), and his simpering pleas for a little nookie, the female turns him down cold. It's no wonder pandas are on the endangered species list. Later, the researchers observe a different panda couple mating. Five months later, the female gives birth to an adorable cub the size of a kitten. In the show's most blatant attempt to create drama where none exists, the mother has to leave the cub alone in order to feed. The cub tumbles momentarily out of the nest, becoming a potential snack for an eagle that clever editing suggests is circling overhead. But before any nature show gruesomeness can go down, the mother returns and Kohn is forced to admit that Smithsonian was just pulling our chains a bit and that the cub was never in any real danger.
In addition to the panda footage and factoids, the program doles out information about the formation of the bears' Chinese mountain range during the last ice age, and introduces us to other exotic animals that rely on bamboo for sustenance, like the golden pheasant, the golden takin, and the bamboo rat. All of it is mildly educational, not particularly entertaining, and definitely not worth purchasing on DVD.
Despite the fact that the show was produced for Smithsonian's HD network, it is presented on this DVD in a 1.78:1 non-anamorphic transfer. Yes, you read that correctly: non-anamorphic. Welcome back to the late 1990s, everyone. The transfer delivers accurate colors with deep black levels, but the image has a flat, video-based look. It is also marred by noticeable interlacing artifacts throughout the program. Simply put, this is an unbelievably awful transfer. It might be passable if the program was a bonus feature on some other DVD, but giving a main feature such a weak treatment is inexcusable.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround audio track is almost as boring as the image. The rear soundstage gets moderate play reinforcing the show's gentle score. All of the narration and most of the music is mixed to the front stage, leaving the track sounding more like a Dolby stereo surround mix than a full 5.1 treatment.
The disc contains no extras.
While Pandas in the Wild would be a decent way to spend an hour if you stumbled upon it on Smithsonian HD, it's an atrocious DVD. Fifteen bucks is too much to pay for a 47-minute program presented in a shoddy, non-anamorphic transfer, and without a single supplement. The pandas sure are cute, though.
Guilty as charged.
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Studio: Smithsonian Channel
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