"Art is a man's nature; nature is God's art." - Philip James Bailey
No plot. No character development. No narration. Just beauty. Living Landscapes: The World's Most Beautiful Places immerses the viewer in the breathtaking visuals of nine regional locales that showcase the serene beauty often found in nature. Not to be confused with the narrative documentary style of the spectacular Planet Earth, Landscapes simply places the camera in gorgeous locations and allows the viewer to savor the sights and sounds at his own leisurely pace. While many will view this as nothing more than a showroom screensaver, I found it soothing and entrancing and thoroughly enjoyed it.
The World's Most Beautiful Places runs just under 75 minutes in length and represents a greatest hits album for the larger 9-disc Living Landscapes collection. Each of the nine locations has its own style and flavor, but they bridge together nicely to create a full experience. The first title on the disc is also the shortest, whetting the appetite for what's to come. "Fall in New England" (2:31) is a brief journey through the deep oranges and reds of the leafy season and is set against the soft piano work of composer Gary Malkin. At present, it is over 100° outside with a suffocating humidity, yet as I lose myself in the images on the screen, I can almost taste the crisp cool autumn air. The tone continues into "Rocky Mountains" (10:04) as breathy woodwinds and light percussion support the piano under mountainous landscapes, epic waterfalls, and time-lapsed cloud movement. Elk and bison leisurely stroll through the valley terrain, while various waterfowl wade past in the lakes below. Next, "Sacred Canyons" (8:07) takes us to the deep earthy tones of the American Southwest. Native American flutes enhance the scenery as the camera pans through delicate erosion-formed arches, and the rain water seeps through the sandstone cliffs of Zion National Park.
The style shifts as we head into the fourth title, leaving behind the desert sands in favor of the vibrant colors of the lush Costa Rican rainforest. "Costa Rica" (6:45) treats us to gorgeous flora and incredible native creatures, focusing on the majestic quality of the hummingbird in flight. Numerous avians are presented here in addition to tree-dwelling mammals like the exotic sloth. The macrophotography in this section is marvelous, capturing insect and flower alike in glorious detail. "Hawaii" (9:36) begins with the light crashing of the waves before a breathtaking Maui sunrise and transitions to the molten lava of Kilauea as it flows into the ocean by Volcanoes National Park. Spectrums of color are seen as light refracts through numerous blowholes scattered throughout the islands, and Hilo's Rainbow Falls is displayed with all its beauty. Having traveled a great distance to stare in awe and experience these moments in person myself, I found this track to be particularly enjoyable as an emotional memory trigger, and the sunrise-to-sunset structure is employed here with great effect.
"Bali" (12:28), the longest of the travelogues, is very much a mixture of the Costa Rica and Hawaii sections with an even greater Asian influence. Much more than the other titles, this one features numerous man-made structures and provides a sense of human life within the beauty, including a brief cultural dance from a native woman. Further distinguishing this section, the soundtrack is heavily percussive and relies on the xylophone and gong to establish its own character. "Olympic Rain Forest" (6:31) brings us back to the United States and the Pacific Northwest to visit the wettest spot in the nation. The slow zoom from a quiet stream proves very soothing, and the dense foliage creates some impressive lighting effects. We stay in the same region for "Pacific Coast" (5:56) as waves crash onto the rocky shores of the coastline and gulls circle overhead. Watching this, it's hard to escape the feeling that buried within these Oregon caves is the treasure of One-Eyed Willie. The program wraps with "Redwoods" (12:15), a slower paced track that takes its time examining the majesty of these incredible trees as they stretch high into the atmosphere.
Living Landscapes: The World's Most Beautiful Places is brought to HD DVD in 1.78:1 with MPEG-2 encoding. Filmed with high definition cameras, it should be no surprise that the visuals are stunning. The image pops off the screen with vibrant colors and a clean level of detail that often provides that much desired "window" effect one hopes to experience with HD content. The intent here is to transport the viewer to another place with a feast of visual beauty, and it succeeds in that goal immensely. Unfortunately, there are noticeable problems in the transfer when panning across the more expansive landscapes of high detail. For example, shots staged a great distance from a densely-packed forest exhibit obvious "jaggies" throughout the leaves as the camera pans from left to right. While this is not desirable, most of the scenes are not staged in this manner, so it only happens every once in a while, and even then, it still looks pretty good, often as if a gentle breeze is blowing through the trees.
Audio is included in Dolby Digital 5.1, and it mostly consists of light and airy background music. When necessary, the ambient sounds of the crashing waves or the birds in flight are enhanced, but the effect is appropriately subtle and used sparingly. The score itself is dominated by pianos and flutes and soft percussion, so expectedly there isn't much depth to the surround experience, other than routing the soundtrack through all the channels. Rainforest settings like Costa Rica are more immersive than the rest, with the sounds of the encompassing world heard nicely through the rears. Clearly, the audio on this set is not intended to blow you away but simply to add texture to the visuals, and it accomplishes that very effectively.
The disc itself is pretty underwhelming. The main menu is structured with simple white text over a short stretch of video depicting a water sunset. The options here are "Play All", "Destination Menu", and "Individual Destination Loops" (you can also access the credits on this screen as well as a cheaply rendered advertisement for the individual hour-long versions of each location sold separately). "Play All" obviously plays all nine titles sequentially, while the other two take you to a selection menu where you can choose to watch a specific program once or on a loop. Each destination is stored on the disc as its own single-chapter title, so if your player doesn't have an easy way to navigate from one title to another, you can't choose "Play All" and then quickly skip to the third in the sequence. Disappointingly, there is a bug for the website that appears from time to time during playback in the lower right corner of the screen. Since this disc will likely be used in many public settings, I can understand the motivation to do this, but it's still annoying. Not to let something like that discourage you from buying the disc, I should emphasize that the footprint for this is rather small with an average transparency, so it's not as intrusive as you might be picturing in your mind. Disappointingly, this disc does not feature the auto-looping ability of the Blu-ray counterpart. On the Blu-ray version, you could insert the disc and walk away, and it would automatically work its way through the titles on continuous loop. That functionality is perfect for a release like this one, so if you're format neutral and have to choose (and care about this feature), go with the Blu-ray disc.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
There are no bonus materials on this disc.
While one might question just how "worldly" Living Landscapes: The World's Most Beautiful Places actually is, you cannot deny its beauty. The 75 minutes on this greatest hits collection transport the viewer far from home to experience breathtaking vistas and observe the graceful creatures that inhabit them. After watching it for this review, I found myself returning to it for peace and calm in my office while I worked on other projects. Clearly, this is mostly background viewing and is not going to be a rewatchable title for a dedicated home theater, but if you like this type of passive nature photography, I think you will find much to enjoy from the stunning visuals and gorgeous locations presented on this disc. Recommended