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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The BBC Natural History Collection
The BBC Natural History Collection
BBC Worldwide // Unrated // April 1, 2008
List Price: $199.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted April 17, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:
The BBC Natural History Collection is a repackaging of four of the most acclaimed documentary series that this august broadcasting venture has produced: Planet Earth, Blue Planet: Seas of Life, The World of Mammals and The World of Birds, all of which are either hosted or narrated by that most expert of experts on all subjects nature-oriented, David Attenborough. Yes, the set is expensive (though you will save a bit buying these together rather than separately), but if you are a fan of this kind of material you can do no better than the four of these put together.

Now I don't want to get all New Age spiritually gooey with you, but I am fairly prone to a sense of awe and wonder as I confront the truly unbelievable variety of life which inhabits this planet, not to mention the equally unbelievable fact that we reside on a living ball of rock and water that is spinning through a space which is quite literally inconceivably infinite. Whether or not one is particularly prone to posit a Deity behind and in charge of it all (and David Attenborough himself is actually an agnostic, as he has discussed at length in some interviews), there's no escaping the fact that the mere existence of us all and our many cohabitants on our little corner of the universe can be mind-blowing, at least to those who share my peculiar world-view. So on one hand I'm the perfect target audience for the many superlative natural history documentaries which emanate with great regularity from the BBC, and based on the ratings and DVD sales of some of the series contained in this new boxed set, I'm nowhere near the only one. On the other hand, even if you're somewhat numb to the delights of stopping to smell the roses, and maybe even especially if you are, these natural history pieces are more than apt to reawaken that childlike sense of "wow" that sometimes disappears under the mounting stresses of adulthood. Chief among these shows lately (especially for those wanting to show off their nifty new high-definition televisions) have been Planet Earth and its sister series Blue Planet, both included in this massive 17 (you read that correctly) disc set, but there are also two equally riveting, if slightly less visually impressive (at least in the case of The Life of Birds) series hosted by the redoubtable David Attenborough, The Life of Mammals and The Life of Birds.

Planet Earth

Overview:

This remarkable series quickly became the gold standard of high-def documentaries when it premiered on The Discovery Channel a couple of years ago, followed by its overwhelming success as a standard def DVD and then one of the few initial DVDs released both in HD-DVD and Blu-Ray formats. In fact, it was one of the few major sets whose HD-DVD sales outshone its Blu-Ray numbers. But the simple fact is even this standard def DVD is simply amazing, especially if watched on an upconverting player, despite the very occasional artifact. Having seen both the hi-def version (in HD-DVD) and the standard def version, I can say for all but the most demanding viewer even the standard def version is going to give your eyes a treat, even (heaven forfend) if watched on one of those Dark Ages analog televisions and old style SD DVD players.

This five disc series runs the gamut from pole to pole (actually the name of the first episode), with virtually every place in between, covering 60-plus countries and countless ecosystems. We are treated to such an amazing variety of life that it is almost overwhelming at times: while the other series in this set tend to focus on certain discrete elements of the planet (animals, birds, sea life), Planet Earth is notable in that it attempts, and largely succeeds, in taking in everything. Therefore, you not only get animals and birds galore but also the environments in which they live. Most episodes concentrate on particular types of environments (e.g., "Mountains," "Deserts," and "Caves"), but treat their subjects on a global scale, so that any one episode will span relevant information from areas as remote as the Amazon and the Sahara, while also highlighting the various living creatures that inhabit these areas.

These BBC documentaries have always had both a visual flair and an unerringly well thought out flow of information (largely due, I suspect, to Attenborough's simply meticulous understanding of his various subjects), but Planet Earth takes these elements to a whole new level, no doubt aided, visually at least, by being filmed in high definition. Whether we are watching polar bears frolic in the arctic wilderness or journeying beneath the ocean for a rare glimpse at the incredible variety of sealife that virtually no one has ever seen before, Planet Earth offers one dazzling vista after another, all (with very rare exceptions) presented in a gorgeously crisp presentation that will more than occasionally make your eyes bug out of your head.

It's the fifth disc of extra features which may dispel some of the joy felt in watching the previous episodes. A look back on the production as a whole, these features also address such growing disasters as the collapse of certain species, notably amphibians like frogs, as well as the threats faced by others, such as polar bears, by that omnipresent bugaboo, global warming.

Contents Summary:

Disc One includes "From Pole to Pole," an all-encompassing introduction to what you'll see in subsequent episodes (keep your eye out for the Amur leopards, which are close to extinction, as is described in Disc Five), "Mountains," with some beautiful aerial footage of the world's most impressive peaks, and "Fresh Water" which serves as an interesting companion piece to Disc Four's "Oceans Deep." I had no idea so little of the water on our planet was of the fresh variety. The aerial footage in this episode is also spectacular, especially Angel Falls, the world's tallest waterfall (at over 3000 feet) in Venezuela.

Disc Two features some extremely rare footage in "Caves" taken in a New Mexico cave with formations sculpted by sulphuric acid. There's also "Deserts," which spans the globe and finds a surprising number of denizens who like hot arid conditions, as well as (for contrast's sake) "Worlds of Ice," which had one of my favorite sequences in the whole series, a really nifty looking time lapse segment showing the changing topography of Antarctica through the seasons.

Disc Three offers "Great Plains," which, despite its title, actually focuses more on such locales as Eurasia and the Indian subcontinent than the mid-section of the United States, and includes some gut-wrenching footage of a nighttime lion attack, courtesy of "night vision" infrared cameras. Next up is "Jungles," which is fun to compare to some of the episodes of "Life of Birds," since it features the abundant variety of winged creatures that inhabit our more densely wooded planetary areas. The third episode on this disc is "Shallow Seas," which points the way toward Blue Planet with its exploration of undersea life close to the coasts of continents. Because this episode doesn't venture into the dark and murky depths like some of Blue Planet's episodes, we are given a really clear view of some amazing footage, including some great shots of humpback whales.

Disc Four starts off with a stunning look at my particular neck of the woods (literally), the Pacific Northwest, in "Seasonal Forests." While I personally would have appreciated a more leisurely trek through not only the rain forests that dot Washington and Oregon, but also the Sequoias and Redwoods of Northern California, the episode does a thorough job of visiting locales around the globe, including the east coast of the United States and Siberia. The final regular episode is "Ocean Deep" which obviously paves the way for the more in-depth (no pun intended) Blue Planet, but which manages to survey a vast array of sealife in its 50-plus minutes.

The bonus Disc Five, as mentioned above, concentrates on conservation efforts in three extra episodes, "Saving Species," "Into the Wilderness," and "Living Together," which highlights worldwide strategies to protect wildlife rapidly becoming extinct or endangered due to shrinking habitats and climate change.

Video: The 1.78:1 enhanced image is about 99.9% superb. I noticed two or three digital artifacts throughout the series, most noticeable in rapid movement sequences such as flights of birds or large herds of various wildlife running quickly. I doubt most viewers will even notice these occasional blips, because for the vast, vast majority of this series, the video quality is simply incredible. Color, saturation and sharpness are all excellent.

Audio: There's a surprising amount of separation in the 5.1 soundtrack, which consists (as is usually the case in these things) mostly of narration and underscore. The underscore does have great fidelity and good balance, and there are some spectacular moments with separation, as when a flock of flamingos moves rapidly from right to left. English, French and Spanish subtitles are available.

Extras: Aside from Disc Five, there are also superb shorts coupled with each episode entitled "Planet Earth Diaries," which give an unusual amount of background information on exactly how each episode was filmed. It's in these information-packed featurettes where you'll find out about the new, quieter and steadier camera hardware they used to capture such thrilling images.

The Blue Planet: Seas of Life

Overview:

Because of Planet Earth's overwhelming success, some may think of Blue Planet as a follow-up series, but the fact is this one actually came first, having initially aired in the UK in 2001. While it may not be quite up to the visual splendor of its successor, it is nonetheless one incredible looking documentary with so many rare and literally heretofore unfilmed creatures that it frequently boggles the imagination. One of its few failings, however, comes simply by virtue of where this series was filmed: underwater. While that makes for some unusual and seldom seen sights, it also makes for occasional severely limited views verging at times (as in the extra feature "Amazon Abyss") on near inscrutability.

This is a very minor quibble, though, in a series that takes us to depths heretofore unexplored while imparting one fascinating fact after another. For example, did you know a whale's tongue weighs as much as an elephant? Or that coral reefs attack each other for territorial rights? It's this kind of specificity that is the hallmark of the best of the BBC documentaries, and Blue Planet usually comes through swimmingly (sorry) in this regard.

Considering the logistical difficulties of filming this series (some of which is covered in the really exceptional "making of" shorts that accompany each episode), the footage captured is truly remarkable. I was literally gape-jawed time and time again seeing creatures I had no idea existed and which look like nothing you've ever seen. In one of the most visually impressive episodes, "Coral Seas," take a look at the completely bizarre spider-like polka-dotted (yes, polka-dotted) creatures dragging a starfish away for a nice evening meal.

But there are also loving shots of more familiar creatures, some in glorious slow-motion, including the massive blue whale and some sleek dolphins. Blue Planet does an admirable job describing not only the topography of various ocean habitats, but also the ecosystems which exist far beneath the probing eyes of man (well, usually at least). Attenborough's narration is as always cogent and full of precise detail, even though he is not given a writing credit on this series.

Contents Summary:

Disc One features "Ocean Worlds," a sort of highlight reel of what will be dealt with in more detail in coming episodes, but which features some great blue whale footage. Up next is "Frozen Seas," concentrating on the icy waters around Antarctica. You will be amazed at how many lifeforms thrive in such barren conditions.

Disc Two offers "Open Ocean," which contains what must have been some of the most difficult footage to capture, out literally in the middle of nowhere. This episode contains some amazing dolphin footage. The second episode is "The Deep," where you will witness some of the strangest looking sealife ever at depths of over a half-mile down.

Disc Three starts off with "Seasonal Seas," which deals with the perhaps obvious notion that sealife, like terranean species, are affected by the changing weather. While you might think that water would shield water dwellers from the elements, you'll see that the vagaries of the sun and various weather systems actually determine when certain species, like lobsters, reproduce. The second episode, "Coral Seas," was far and away my favorite of the series, if only because it was visually so incredibly beautiful. Featuring some really nifty time-lapse photography of coral reefs developing, the episode is literally a riot of color, not only from the coral, but also the amazing fish species that live in and around the reefs. (You may think twice about walking barefoot on sandy beaches however once you find out where some of that sand comes from).

Disc Four If "Seasonal Seas" let us understand the effects of the sun on sealife, "Tidal Seas", the first episode of this disc, does the same for the moon, showing how our satellite's gravitational pull can affect whole ecosystems, notably the Amazon. The second episode is "Coasts," which leaves the murky depths behind for something akin to "Shallow Seas" in the Planet Earth set, but with some especially beautiful footage of Brasil.

Again you are treated to a bonus Disc Five, which features four good, if not spectacular, pieces, "Amazon Abyss," "Dive to Shark Volcano," "Being There: Antarctica" and "Being There: Between the Tides." These efforts lack the expert hand of Attenborough, and while the diver-host(s) of the first two are certainly personable, they lack Attenborough's seemingly off-the-cuff precision, not to mention his frequent wide-eyed wonder. The second two are older documentaries with traditional voiceover and are fine, but suffer greatly by comparison with the visual overload we've experienced with the original series.

Video: As with Planet Earth there is an extremely crisp 1.78:1 enhanced image, with incredible color and saturation, if extreme darkness at times due to the underwater setting. Like its sister series, there are very, very occasional slight artifacts, including extremely minor aliasing at times, but it's so slight and inconsequential that most viewers will not be bothered at all by it.

Audio: The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack may not have the sweep and majesty of Planet Earth, but it's exceptional in its own right, with excellent separation (listen to the gurgling bubbles move between channels) and some good, if occasionally hokey, underscore. There are no subtitle options.

Extras: Aside from the bonus disc described above, each disc has a making of featurette (under the title "Making Waves") on each episode, hosted by Attenborough. There are also various interviews scattered throughout the discs, including producer Alastair Fothergill, cameraman Doug Allen, and researcher Penny Allen. There are also extremely informational "Fact Files" about various ecosystems and species dealt with in each episode, as well as photo galleries. Disc One features a music video (basically an extended promo with music, much like the one on Life of Mammals, below), and Disc Four has one more documentary, "Deep Trouble," which deals with the devastation caused by the fishing industry.

The Life of Mammals

Overview:

This 2002 series from Attenborough is visually a slight step down from Planet Earth and Blue Planet, but in its very clean 1.78:1 enhanced presentation, not by much. Attenborough again packs an incredible amount of information into four discs and ten episodes. Starting with the characteristics that make mammals mammals (e.g., they all grow some form of hair, produce milk to feed their young, and are warm-blooded), he then sets out to show the awesome variety of life within this one class. That variety is not hard to find when one considers there are over 4,000 species of mammals on earth, everything from you and I to shrews and whales. Augmenting the live footage is some occasional CGI work, usually blended into the proceedings with a fair amount of aplomb.

There are so many surprising moments in this series that it's virtually impossible to single any out, but among the more astonishing images was seeing a baby kangaroo being born. Prior to witnessing this event on The Life of Mammals, I had no idea the newborn was about the size of a lump of sugar, really more fetal than developed, and that after emerging briefly into the outside world from its mother's womb would quickly disappear into her pouch for up to two years while it slowly grew into Joey-hood. But there are so many extraordinary things here, including "how did they ever film that?" moments like watching various long-tongued creatures getting into log stumps to eat insects, or seeing a rare platypus newborn nestled deep beneath the earth in a burrough dug for it by its primordial-looking mother, a mother who unlike most mammals does not provide milk through a nipple but who actually oozes it through her skin!

There are also some sad stories to report here, as with the giant pandas, whose limited diet has led to their virtual demise when Chinese bamboo forests were decimated. They by and large now need to be kept in zoos to promulgate their survival. As is typical in Attenborough's wide-ranging view, he contrasts this monovorous behavior with the raccoon, who will eat virtually anything that wanders into its path. As a result, raccoons are on the other end of the survivability scale, with nothing major threatening their ability to be around for a long, long time.

As is typical with all the series here, the first episode gives somewhat of an overview of upcoming information, starting with broad generalities, so that subsequent episodes can hone in on specifics. As is also typical, but enjoyably so, Attenborough obviously relishes his role in passing on information about natural wildlife that clearly delights and fascinates him.

Contents Summary:

Disc One contains the customary overview opening, "A Winning Design," wherein Attenborough talks about what makes a mammal a mammal, and how their adaptive capabilities eventually gave them dominion over the planet. Next up is "Insect Hunters," detailing the sometimes primordial mammals who learned early on that insects were easy prey. Up one step on the food chain are the "Plant Predators," who have to overcome some literally indigestible food to maintain their species.

Disc Two offers the fascinating "Chisellers," mammals whose exceptionally sharp front teeth enables them to actually chew through roots and seeds. "Meat Eaters" focuses on our carnivorous neighbors who actually would feast on you and me if they had the chance. The third episode on this disc revolves around the omnivores. "Opportunists" describes those species that will eat literally anything and everything in order to survive.

Disc Three changes the focus somewhat to habitats and the species that live in them. "Return to the Water" has some beautiful footage of dolphins, porpoises and other undersea creatures that are nonetheless mammalian. "Life in the Trees" contrasts nicely with the first episode by showing some really cool adaptive physiology that enables some species to make their homes high in treetop canopies.

Disc Four starts out with a great single-species episode, "Social Climbers," showing how similar monkeys' social life is to their human cousins. Bringing up the rear is "Food for Thought," about we humans, which despite our advances still exhibit some ancient mammalian traits.

Video: The enhanced 1.78:1 image is just the slightest step down from Blue Planet and Planet Earth, but is quite remarkable on its own merits. Color, saturation, and clarity are all first rate.

Audio: The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack boasts some impressive separation and a nice, if at times overwhelming, orchestral score. Balance and fidelity are both top-notch and, as always, Attenborough's voice is front and center and always easy to hear. English subtitles are available.

Extras: Disc 1 sports a music video along the lines of Blue Planet (above), as well as several score excerpts which you can play separately. There are also the usual fact files and photo galleries found on all the discs, as well as "Behind the Scenes" shorts tied to each episode.

The Life of Birds

Overview:

Though not quite up to the widescreen high-def splendors of Planet Earth or even The Blue Planet, The Life of Birds from 1998 nonetheless sports one amazing (full frame) image after another of our avian friends engaging in various amazing behaviors. Host David Attenborough, who evidently knows no fear (one episode begins with him standing outside of a cave at dusk as literally hundreds of bats flit about his head), covers his usual diverse subjects regarding birds, all the while imparting one fascinating fact after another. As is usual in Attenborough hosted documentaries, he not only provides his dulcet tones for the omnipresent voiceovers, he frequently appears onscreen interacting with various flighted fowl, sometimes amazingly so. Watch how calm he is as he holds a nectar dispenser to attract hummingbirds, several of which fly into his head and face.

This three disc set contains a total of ten episodes which cover not only the natural history of birds, going back literally hundreds of millions of years to "flying dinosaurs" (courtesy of some basic, though effective, CGI), but also many related subjects. Therefore, you'll get an episode on the physics of flying, detailing various methods birds use to take off (some climb trees, others leap off cliffs, and still others, like the albatross, need to run for a while to build up speed). Several episodes deal with various foods birds eat (and they eat a lot, courtesy of the massive calories burned by their flying), with some amazing footage of birds actually taking down monkeys for a quick snack. Several other episodes detail various courtship and parenting rituals, including the literally breathtaking displays of plumage that male birds flaunt to attrack their mates. My personal favorite episode was the lovely "Signals and Songs," detailing the vocal and visual cues different species of birds give to communicate with each other. It's simply amazing to see how smaller birds gang together to scare off an attacking raven (including spraying their droppings on him, all in slow-motion splendor), or to hear various bird calls slowed down so that their incredible artistry can be more fully appreciated. What was really amazing in this episode was seeing various birds revealed in ultraviolet light. It turns out most birds can see in the ultraviolet spectrum, and the differences, even within species, when seen that way is nothing short of astounding. It is, no pun intended, a real eye-opener to realize that other lifeforms that live beside us every day see the world in literally a very different light.

The series is marked by some truly splendid slow-motion photography. Watching the images unfold at such a leisurely pace of course somewhat negates the incredible expertise the photographers had to have to grasp the images--frequently fleeting acrobatic bits of flying--in "real time." As is the case in all of the brilliant BBC productions, watching these "everyday" situations close-up, and slowed down, opens the viewer up to the wonder of it all. Mix that in with the unexpected detail, as in one episode where a bee-eating bird is shown breaking off the bee's stinger on a branch and then squeezing the bee with its beak to discharge the venom, and you get an amazing set of lessons taught by a master naturalist who obviously delights in imparting information.

Contents Summary:

Disc One begins with the overview "To Fly or Not to Fly," which gives a nice history of birds from their reptilian beginnings to their current status. "The Mastery of Flight" the continues into the physics of flying, showing a variety of strategies for different species to get airborne. "The Insatiable Appetite" details the many foods birds need to eat to sustain their caloric intake so that they can indeed fly. There's also a nice focus on different kinds of bills and beaks that allow different kinds of birds to feast on various foodstuffs. The fourth episode becomes more specific by dealing with birds who are "Meat Eaters," containing some astounding footage of, among others, eagles who prey on monkeys.

Disc Two contains "Fishing for a Living," showing how many seaborne birds use vastly different strategies to capture their meals. "Signals and Songs," as mentioned above, was my favorite episode and is a feast for the eyes and ears with its focus on birdsong and plumage. "Finding Partners" goes into mating rituals and also contains some amazing displays of male plumage as they attempt to attract females.

Disc Three offers "The Demands of the Egg," showing how careful various species are to protect their unhatched young. Of course, the troubles only grow after the hatchlings appear, all well-covered in "The Problems of Parenthood." The final episode is "The Limits of Endurance," showing the many trying ecosystems birds must attempt to live in, none more harrowing than modern man-built cities.

Video: If it were not housed next door to its high-def filmed and anamorphically enhanced siblings, The Life of Birds would probably fare better in the image quality department. Simply by virtue of its relative age and its full frame aspect ratio, it suffers greatly when compared to the others in this set. There's a fair amount of grain at times (something that seems to haunt BBC filmed television), but the color is for the most part excellent, with good, if not exceptional, saturation and acceptable contrast.

Audio: The standard stereo soundtrack will not make you perk up your ears as will the others in this set, but it does a quite excellent job of capturing the many hoots and caws of the various bird species. Attenborough's narration is always front and center and is perfectly rendered.

Extras: The Life of Birds is the exception to the rule in this set, with no extras offered.

Final Thoughts:
This is quite simply the mother lode of natural history documentaries. Each of these taken separately is a wonder in and of itself, but when combined together provide an unbeatable look at the incredible variety of life we're confronted with every day.

____________________________________________
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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