When Stephen Colbert had documentarian Ken Burns on a couple weeks back to promote his new documentary series The National Parks: America's Best Idea, he hilariously dubbed the series "nature porn." But it's not just nature lovers who are lapping up these docs when they hit Blu-ray; when the BBC's Planet Earth was released in both HD formats back in summer of 2007, it quickly became the must-have demo disc for any respectable high-def enthusiast. The mini-series Yellowstone (dramatically retitled Yellowstone: Battle for Life on the cover art, but not on the menu or titles) also comes from across the pond, and offers more of the stunning wildlife photography that Blu-ray owners crave. It's also informative, intelligent, and often downright fascinating.
The show comes in three episodes, each running about 50 minutes: "Winter," "Summer," and "Autumn" (they don't get much of a spring in Yellowstone, since winter lasts a good six months). Narrator Peter Finch describes the Colorado national park as "a world of extremes that challenges all that strive to live here." The first episode is probably the best; not only does "Winter" explain the crippling conditions of those months ("for half the year, Yellowstone is frozen solid"), but it also delves into how the park got there, and why it's so potentially volatile.
"Summer" begins in April, as the bears come out of hibernation and the migrating herds return; "Autumn" picks up in late August, in the run-up to that crippling winter ("the animals of Yellowstone will have to get ready... or get out"), as pine squirrels, birds, and beavers prepare for the long winter ahead.
As a viewer, I've never been tremendously involved in wildlife documentaries; they tend to conjure up thoughts of Saturday afternoons, bored at the grandparents' house while Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom" droned on in the background. Well, nature films have come a long way since then, as Planet Earth proved; the advances in lenses, photography, and high-definition video technology have made these films closer, tighter, more intimate, more personal.
Yellowstone has an abundance of amazing moments, of scenes that take your breath away and make you wonder how on earth they got that on film. In the winter, a fox hunting for mice deep in the snow leaps straight up and then deep into the thick white carpet in a truly stunning display of speed and grace. In the summer, there is extraordinary footage of an underwater traffic jam--"Yellowstone cutthroat trout" preparing to spawn. In that same episode, a mother bear and her cubs go fishing, and it's fascinating to watch them; they're rather clumsy, yet somehow adorable. That episode closes with an amazing sequence of the mother bear fiercely defending her cubs from a wandering male bear--as Finch intones what has happened to the mother, I realized how involved I had become in their struggle.
The highlight of the autumn episode, for this viewer anyway, is the section on beavers; that footage, of the animals chewing down trees and building their dams, is wonderful. But that sequence does what the best of these documentaries do--it shows these animals in their element, engaging in their ingrained behavior and following their natural instincts. This world that they inhabit is so fully realized over the course of the first two hours of the mini-series that the late appearance of humans, in the form hunters in nearby forests, is frankly a little shocking; likewise, the sections concerning the effects of nearby oil drilling are particularly poignant in light of the dance of nature we've just witnessed (forgive me for letting my liberal flag fly--I'll pack it away now). That dovetails nicely into an interesting disclosure of the surprising importance of wolves to the entire Yellowstone ecosystem. It's a bit of a cliché, but everything is indeed circular, a fact we consider as the animals of America's first national park prepare for another hard winter, and the cycle that kicked off this fascinating series begins anew.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Yellowstone's sports a breathtaking 1.78:1, 1080i image, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC. The picture is lifelike and frequently stunning, from the haunting, beautiful fire scene to the golden coloration of the fall leaves to a "blizzards of seeds and insects." But the details are what really sing--the tight close-ups of the falling snowflakes and "diamond dust" look real enough to touch, as do the spring bulbs pushing up through the snow at the beginning of the summer episode. But the warm glow of the autumn episode was, for this viewer, most impressive; there's a shot of a bison silhouetted against the blazing sun that I wanted to frame and put up on my wall. There are occasional flaws, particularly in the winter episode--a touch of banding in the white sky of a hunt sequence, a couple of quick flashes of compression artifacts. But those only stuck out because the rest of it looks so very good.
The disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 presentation doesn't quite measure up to the top-notch video, but you can't ask for everything. There are some stellar moments in it, however, such as the rumbling of the geysers, the immersive snow storms, the flight of the hummingbirds, and the late appearance of a herd of cows and bulls. The chirping birds and flowing streams provide lovely environmental sound for much of the program, though they could've been mixed a tad hotter. Center-channel narration is clear throughout.
A Dolby Digital 2.0 track is also offered, as are English subtitles.
The bonus features are limited to three somewhat underwhelming featurettes. "Jeff Henry, The Snowman" (10:03) profiles the ex-park ranger and winter photographer who works through the winter as Yellowstone's so-called "roof shoveler." "Geyser Gazers" (10:49) concerns the naturephiles who track and observe the eruptions of Yellowstone's many geysers. "Mike Kasic: The Fishman" (10:26) profiles the sound recordist and Montana resident who spends his free time swimming the Yellowstone River. The featurettes are mildly interesting, but certainly not essential, and the standard-definition picture suffers greatly in comparison to the main feature.
The close proximity of Yellowstone's release to the aforementioned The National Parks: America's Best Idea surely couldn't just be a coincidence; indeed, the final line of narration in Yellowstone reads, in regards to national parks, that they are, "some say, America's best idea." But the BBC documentary stands just fine on its own two feet; the photography is remarkable, the information is valuable, and yes, it will show off your Blu-ray player and HD-TV beautifully.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.