You bought your tickets to Cancun and supplied yourself with sunscreen, drinking money, condoms and everything else needed for a fun vacation. But as you head to the taxi, you remember the one thing you forgot to cram into your over-stuffed suitcase: your three-year-old.
The DVD Travel with Kids - Mexico: The Yucatan Mayan Riviera was designed to help you avoid such travel missteps. We'd all like to write off our vacations off as a business expense, but "the Roberts family" (directors Jeremy and Carrie Simmons and their kids) found a way to do it. The family documents their trip to the Yucatan and identifies the potential pitfalls of traveling with restless, messy children.
The concept certainly sounds useful, but the movie spends too much time stating the obvious and not enough unravelling the real joys of travel or seeking out hidden gems and surprises. It has some useful information, but won't reduce your need for additional travel guides.
The DVD is well done by the standards of home movies, which is what it really is. But it doesn't hold up as well by travel video standards. While it displays some nice-looking attractions and accommodations, the video offers little in terms of real logistical tips--no peak and lull hours, no info on bathrooms and changing rooms near Mayan ruins, no name or address for the cute coffee shop/book store where the family grabs a bite to eat.
The editing and videography are generally easy to follow, but there are some occasional quirks. A Mayan history lesson becomes particularly disorienting, as shots of informative text panels that move too fast to read are super-imposed over other moving shots of ruins, while at the same time a voice-over delivers completely different information. Try to process what the audio-visuals throw at you in that sequence, and you'll get a headache.
We also don't get many real moments with the kids. Any problems, such as someone feeling sick, are usually handled in voice-over. About 80 percent of the kids' words are prompted from the parent with the camera. This process yields youthful travel insights like "We're riding a bus in Cancun," and, "I'm riding a boat in Cancun." At this standard, it's rather thrilling when the boy says, "I'm learning a lot about the Mayan pyramids and there's a lot of lizards in the shade around here." At an aquarium and some other attractions, the filmmakers turn the cameras on some other kids who have a little more to say--which doesn't say much.
The male voice-over, provided not by Jeremy but by Larry Miles, is good, but Carrie's is bland. She sounds like she's trying too be energetic, but can't sell her enthusiasm. And that tone sums up the whole movie.
The 4x3 video looks quite nice for a low-budget DV travel documentary. The colorful picture captures the beauty of the locale and generally looks natural, but there are some interlacing problems that created jaggies and combing on my progressive display. Material shot in low-light, such as a sea turtle laying eggs in Cancun at night, lacks detail and shows a lot of noise, but there aren't many night sequences. Based on DVDTalk reviews by Jeremy Blitz and Kurt Dahlke, it sounds as if certain video and sound elements improved in later series, including an upgrade to 16x9 picture.
While generally passable, some of the location sound recording on the documentary is notably poor. The feature often employs subtitles because the recording picked up more noise than voice. This kind of problem could have been easy avoided with a better microphones and/or mic placement. The problem is mostly with kids, I guess because they didn't want to wear lavaliere microphones the whole trip. The music fades in and out awkwardly when the kids speak, so as not to further burry their voices, but the resulting sound still requires subtitles.
The stereo mix is otherwise acceptable (although Carrie's voice-over lacks presence). There are no subtitle options or alternate language tracks.
The DVD contains a generous collection of extras, but unfortunately they include a lot of slides that were thrown together without concern for aesthetics or usability. While looking at one slide, you may find yourself thrown back to the main menu rather than to the remainder of the sub-menu you were looking at.
The section with the most extras is called Plan Your Trip and includes a collection of of videos and slides. Planning Together offers a few tips on pre-trip planning to ensure that everyone has a good time. The More Information section features short informational videos on four hotels from the main feature and AeroMexico. While the places look nice, each segment feels more like an advertisement than a review. And since the DVD only mentions one hotel for each area, it isn't all that enlightening for those who want to explore their options.
The section also includes a series of text-based screens. Itineraries suggests time allotment for one- and two-week trips, but doesn't go into detail beyond how many days to spend in each area. Packing Tips goes notably deeper and suggests useful things to bring that you might forget during planning. There is also an easy-to-miss packing tip video on the first page, although you'll find more details in the slides. Travel Products lists possibly useful devices that may make it easier to travel with kids (tranquilizer guns aren't listed). It also includes a list questions to ask your hotel before arriving. Some of the contraptions sound useful, but I began to suspect that the producers were just trying to peddle their website.
The last collection of slides, Resources, suggests books movies and music for kids and adults to prepare for the trip and help get the kids excited.
The slide-heavy Mexico at Home features more tips to generate pre-trip excitement. Recipes suggests foods for a Mexico-themed party. Activities includes a slide and a video on Mayan weaving, done with with yarn and a piece of cardboard (the end result on the demo isn't exactly stunning, but it could be fun) and a slide on tortilla making. The Languages screen offers a nice collection of Spanish words and phrases, along with a pronunciation key. There's also a slide of Mayan phrases. Unfortunately, the DVD doesn't offer audio samples for pronunciation, so you might as well grab a pocket phrase-book instead.
The Bloopers video doesn't really contain many bloopers and likely won't entertain you unless your kid is in it. Running more than seven minutes, it's the longest extra feature and well outstays its welcome.
Finally, the Other Guides and About Us sections include clips from the Caribbean and Hawaiian Travel with Kids DVDs and a slide with info on the production company and URLs for its Web sites.
It would be nice if the extras included additional information on the attractions from the main feature, such as address and/or time of operation, but again, you can get that in the travel book you'll inevitably need.
You were only ever going to think about checking out Travel with Kids - Mexico: The Yucatan Mayan Riviera if you were planning a trip--with your kids--to the Yucatan. And while this DVD might provide you with a few useful tips, you'll probably find the same tips in your travel books. Rent it if you must, but I think it's safe to skip this one.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.