If you like your documentaries with massive helpings of down home Americana, Jump: A Frogumentary is the film for you. Justin Bookey's documentary about the longstanding frog jumping competition in Angel's Camp, California, located in Calaveras County, highlights a number of the endearing, quirky characters involved and provides a light but interesting experience.
The frog jumping competition has been going on since 1928, and was inspired by the Mark Twain short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County". As a rule, each frog gets three jumps, and the longest distance wins. The current record, of more than 21 feet, is held by Lee Giudici, whose frog Rosie the Ribeter made the leap. Giudici is interviewed numerous times for Jump, along with a number of other "frog jockeys" and members of various teams that compete year after year in the annual competition.
A large part of what makes the film work is the down home feeling, the familiarity and plain folksiness of things, mixed in with a hint of absurdity. This is small town America at its gonzo best. Almost all of the subjects interviewed are just plain folks, people you might see in any town across the United States. They are by turns idiosyncratic, straightforward, competitive, honest, hardworking, etc. Oh, and they are all obsessed with frogs and frog jumping. While everyone seems to get along, with the possible exception of the animal rights advocate who abhors the very idea of a frog jump, each person involved takes frog jumping very seriously, and is determined to win. They spend weeks in preparation, trolling through local swamps and canals catching their amphibian athletes. Storing them in hand made, custom containers. Feeding them. Coddling them. Training them. This is serious business.
The teams, which come from all around the country, as well as in Calaveras County itself and the surrounding area, each have their own special methods and years of experience. For some, it's even a family tradition, with children and grandchildren carrying on over generations.
The personalities of all of these people, strangely intense and focused in on what seems to be a silly competition, are what make Jump so enjoyable. They're naturally likeable. And even though the whole thing is a little weird, Jump manages to infuse the competition with some genuine tension. We come to know most of the major players, and by the end can't help but root for the Ziehlke family, of the local Calaveras County team, to win. No local team has won for many years, and they are passionate about bringing the trophy back home. The whole family gets involved, from the youngest children on up.
The genuine likability of these people, despite their strange passion, makes Jump an easy hour and a half to drift through. No new insights into human nature are on offer, and no weighty issues are grappled with. Even the animal rights controversy is barely dealt with, and presented in a rather low key fashion. This is simple, unchallenging American fun. But it is fun. Check it out.
The video is presented in 1.33:1 standard, and does have some quality issues. There is a significant amount of aliasing and some graininess. However, this is a film that can be enjoyed with little concern about the image quality.
The sound is in Dolby 2 channel, and does the job but is not spectacular. Dialogue is always clearly audible, and no hiss or other problems can be discerned. No subtitles or alternate language tracks are available.
There are a number of extras included with the disc, but nothing very substantial. They are:
Clocking in at 3:42, this is simply Justin Bookey explaining why he chose the Calaveras frog jumping competition as a subject. Apparently, his childhood allergies to furred animals caused him to be particularly fond of reptiles and amphibians.
Meet Emily Stemler Featurette
Emily Stemler is the manager of the Angel's Camp Museum. This interview, which lasts just under 3 minutes, is charming but slight.
Jumpin' Frog Jubilee Music Video
Gayle Schmitt & the Toodala Ramblers provide a bluegrass rendition of the song that details the origins of the Calaveras County frog jumping competition.
Red, Yellow or Bull? A Grime Scene Investigation
At just over 7 minutes, this featurette deals with the efforts of Bob Stack, PhD and the Jumping Frog Research Institute to ensure the continued survival of the native amphibians of the area. There's also the question of the frog in the original Mark Twain story. At the time that Twain wrote his famous tale, bullfrogs did not exist in California. Dr. Stack discusses which of the indigenous frogs might have been on Twain's mind.
This trailer, like the film itself, has a wry sense of humor, and is fairly entertaining.
Think of the documentary Jump: A Frogumentary as a pleasant afternoon stroll. It is calm, uncontroversial and provides a simple pleasure. Director Justin Bookey allows the frog jump participants to mostly speak for themselves, and they do so admirably. They approach the annual frog jump with an uncomplicated delight, and that is exactly the attitude with which to approach this film.