You can't always judge a DVD by its cover, but the packaging for Knut & Friends (Knut und seine Freunde, 2008), as well as the picture above, offers a fairly accurate representation of the documentary within. This is an unabashed cute-fest; a virtual highlight reel of some of the most adorable animal footage you're likely to see. The star of the show is Knut, a young male polar bear born and raised inside the walls of the Berlin Zoo. He was rejected by his mother---and, as we learn during the documentary, fathers are never part of the family equation---so he was paired with the late Thomas Dörflein, a zookeeper who passed away suddenly in September 2008, soon after Knut approached adult size. Dörflein's non-stop job included feeding, cleaning, and playing with the young cub, who grew exponentially as this documentary progressed. And just as quickly as Knut grew, so did the public's interest in him: flocks of visitors arrived daily, young and old, to catch a glimpse of the furry white superstar.
His "friends", in this case, are two other groups of bears in different locations: one is a pair of orphaned brown bear cubs in the wilderness of Belarus, while the other is a mama polar bear and three cubs in the Arctic tundra. Both offer occasional breaks from the Knut footage---and though a more focused look at our star would've been interesting, I didn't mind these diversions in the least. All three stories are somewhat limited in scope: filming looks to have taken place over the course of a year or two, and they generally keep things light and trouble-free. The Belarus story offers a bit more action and suspense than the other two, as the mischievous cubs struggle to survive against tough odds. It's certainly appropriate viewing for young children, although a few not-so-happy moments are covered along the way...but luckily, they're treated with care and aren't dwelled upon.
A few minor drawbacks keep Knut and Friends from reaching greater heights, however. The documentary's first fault is the awkward narration, which attempts to seamlessly take us from one setting to another. Problem is, it usually comes across as corny: our omnipresent narrator introduces himself as "The Wind", and his first-person comments don't always get the job done. There's also an extremely forced coda before the credits roll, hinting at "our changing climate" and other environmental theories. Knut & Friends means well...but this tacked-on approach feels clumsy, like a stranger's sob story followed by a plea for twenty bucks. Had the documentary taken an environmental stance from the beginning, such statements might be easier to swallow.
For the most part, though, this is a fun, leisurely romp that animal lovers of all ages should enjoy. Presented on DVD by Image Entertainment, Knut & Friends makes its Region 1 debut in a somewhat underwhelming fashion. The technical presentation isn't half bad, but the lack of bonus features certainly takes this release down a notch. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays, Knut and Friends looks good with a few moderate reservations. This documentary suffers from noticeable amounts of interlacing and appears slightly soft at times, though other digital eyesores are kept to a minimum. The film's natural color palette appears accurate, while black levels are fairly consistent from start to finish. It's not a perfect transfer by any means---but considering some of the conditions this footage was shot under, these problems shouldn't hinder your viewing enjoyment too much.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Stereo mix is low-key but still has its moments. Separation is fine and the English narrative comes through clearly, while burned-in subtitles translate the bulk of Dörflein's German dialogue. The film's score rarely fights for attention, though it rarely moves beyond the front channels. Most of the wildlife action also stays up front, while rear channels are occasionally used for atmospheric effect. Optional English SDH and Spanish captions are included during the main feature, which is an extremely nice touch.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the animated menu designs are basic and easy to navigate, although the chapter selection screen is a bit cumbersome. Refreshingly enough, no forced advertisements, trailers, studio logos or warning screens play before the main menu. The 86-minute main feature has been divided into 15 chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase and includes no inserts of any kind.
Unfortunately, no bonus features are included here. A few deleted scenes or a tribute to Dörflein would've been appreciated, but this charming documentary still does a decent job of standing on its own two feet.
Heartfelt and good-natured, Knut & Friends is an enjoyable romp for animal lovers of all ages. Although Knut is obviously the star of the show, the other two "families" (and locales) offer a welcome diversion along the way. This documentary loses a few points during the home stretch for heavy-handed preaching and awkward narration, but its doe-eyed conscience is still in the right place. Image Entertainment's DVD package is a mild disappointment, offering a half-decent technical presentation and absolutely no bonus features. In any case, Knut & Friends is a furry highlight reel of adorable moments, so the disc's considerable replay value and low retail price makes this a safe bet for animal-loving families. Mildly Recommended.
Other Links of Interest: Knut Archive (English translation)
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.