In principal at least, Great White Odyssey sounds like a sure-fire win. Made by the fine folks over at National Geographic, it's the study of a single twelve foot long female great white shark as she voyages across the world doing what sharks do and unknowingly setting a record for fastest migration by a fish. You'd expect all manner of awesome underwater photography, dramatic bits where the shark might feed or possibly threaten other sea creatures, interesting stuff like that, right? Unfortunately, while there are sporadic moments that live up to those expectations, a large part of this fairly short fifty-minute documentary is pretty dry.
Our subject, the aforementioned female great white, is named Nicole after Nicole Kidman. She lives in the warm waters off the coast of South Africa but, as this documentary tells us, manages to travel six thousand miles over ninety-nine days. Oceanographers Michael Scholl and Ramon Bonfil manage to tag and track Nicole so that they can learn about her habits and why she's embarked on this rather unusual journey in the first place. What they want to learn is what drives this creature and what would make her want to undertake such a long, arduous and unusual trip, in hopes that it will shed some light on the mysterious social habits of her species.
As we watch and learn about her trip, we see Nicole go through various situations where she has to battle the elements, fight to find food, avoid the traps of human predators and simply strive to stay on course to finish her trip. This lends itself to some great underwater footage of Nicole (and possibly some stand-ins as a couple of shots don't quite always match up with some of the others) doing her thing. Sharks always make for dramatic photography subjects and this footage is absolutely the highlight of this otherwise fairly dry documentary.
As great as some of this footage is, there's just as much of the running time taken up by Scholl and Bonfil, and that's where the feature drags. While there's absolutely no doubt whatsoever that these guys are experts in their field, unfortunately their findings on this expedition don't shed a whole lot of light on anything. The mysterious aspects of Nicole's migratory travels remain as mysterious when the feature ends as they did when it began. It's all well and good to spice up the dramatic footage of the great white with scientific elaborations but we don't really learn anything new here, and much of the information that's conveyed will be very familiar to anyone who shares this reviewer's addiction to sharkumentary films.
Those complains aside, Great White Odyssey is still worth a watch for some of the underwater footage. This isn't the 'be all, end all' of shark documentary films and there are better options out there but some of the imagery here really is quite beautiful and simultaneously ominous. It's not always presented in the best quality (see the next paragraph for an elaboration) but when the cameras are underwater and not watching the scientists, at least on a visual level the piece is a success. It's just a shame that the human side of the documentary is so hit or miss. Had there been a hook in terms of the scientific content this could have been a winner, but there isn't and instead this turns out to be pretty average in terms of entertainment value and educational value as well.
The 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen VC-1 encoded 1080i transfer on Great White Odyssey isn't going to wow you, unfortunately. While some of the disappointment stems from the way that the feature was shot (a lot of it is dark and murky looking) there are obvious problems with the black levels which far too often show heavy macro-blocking problems. Contrast varies from scene to scene and isn't in the least bit consistent while skin tones sometimes look a little bit off. Detail levels are all over the place, meaning sometimes they'll look very good and other times no better than a standard definition DVD. There are problems with compression artifacts and aliasing noticeable throughout the movie as well as some mild banding issues. On the plus side, some shots are quite striking and very impressive. When the detail levels are where they should be, you'll find yourself rightly impressed. It's all the more sad then that the quality varies so much from one scene to the next. The image quality on this release isn't anything to write home about, that's for sure...
The only audio option on this disc is an English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track, so those expecting an HD audio mix are going to be disappointed. Aside from the fact that there's very little in the way of a lower end here, it's not a bad track. The score is spread out nicely as are some ambient noises like the splashing of the waves you'll notice a few different times. Dialogue and narration is always easy to hear and understand and the levels are nicely balanced. This isn't a particularly aggressive or enveloping track but it gets the job done.
The extras on this disc are also quite weak - you get a very small still gallery, two trailers for the feature, some menus and chapter selection. That's it. Yawn.
While the premise is interesting, the execution is a whole different story and unfortunately, as cool as it sounds, Great White Odyssey isn't all that interesting despite a few cool moments. Shark fanatics will want to check it out regardless but be forewarned that the transfer isn't up to par and the audio and extras aren't all that impressive either. Enthusiasts will find more value in it than causal curiosity seekers, but even still, you're best to rent this first before putting down any money on it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.