The aptly named Canyonlands National Park takes up over 300,000 acres of untamed desert wilderness un southern Utah, where the Colorado River meets the Green River. The park is divided into three distinct sections - the Island In The Sky, which is a collection of large, flat buttes; the Needles, which is a massive collection of high and pointed rock formations; and The Maze, which is a massive, swirling collection of rock formations and valleys that literally form a gigantic maze so big that parts of it haven't seen a human in centuries.
National Geographics fifty-minute documentary, Canyonlands, follows a photographer as she travels up the Colorado River in hopes of finding and then photographing the wildlife indigenous to the area and it also follows a few different conservationists who explain what makes the life in this area unique. We start by learning how, while we may not see it, the area does have a fair bit of plant life. We see it spring to life when a rock is sprayed with water and within a matter of minutes is visibly covered in a bright green moss. We also learn how, because of the unique soil formation and topography in the area, a single footprint off of the proper path can cause considerable damage. In this area it takes hundreds of years for soil to form, but only a second for it to be uprooted.
We also learn how anthropologists have been studying the area in hopes of learning what ingredients that native Americans who used to live in the area used to make cave and rock paintings that would last hundreds, if not thousands, of years. We see how they use modern photography and technology to digitally retrieve information that has been digested into the porous rocks and virtually see the paintings as they would have originally appeared. We also learn how cowboys used the natural rock formations to make base camps in the area. Scientists take us along for the journey as they explore different homes and camps that have long since been vacated but still exist in the area as remnants of the area's past. We also learn about some of the animals in the area, from mites that live in potholes to long horned sheep.
While the cinematography really does an amazing job of showing off how remarkably beautiful this part of the country is, Canyonlands could have benefited from a tighter context. The narration gives us only a very light overview of the conservationist efforts that are taking place in the area and fails at giving us much of a history at all. We don't learn how or why the area became a national park, nor do we learn how the people who were once indigenous to the area lived or, for that matter, why they don't live there anymore. What National Geographic has supplied here is certainly quite interesting but as the documentary plays out, it winds up leaving us with a lot of unanswered questions that could have been elaborated on in order to provide a more fulfilling look at the park and its inhabitants, past and present. Likewise, the feature touches on how the area was formed, but doesn't spend nearly enough time going into any real detail on how the unique rock formations in the area came to be - possibly because some of the information just isn't there, and much of what exists in that regard is theoretical.
Where this feature really excels is in the visuals. There are some remarkable shots here - plenty of them, in fact. Long, sweeping shots of Canyonlands capture from high above the park give us a great view and really show how impressive and otherworldly this area really is, while more intimate and close in shots show us different rock formations as well as some of the animals that live in the area in great detail. There are moments in this feature where you'll almost wonder if what you're looking at is really real or taken out of some sort of surrealist landscape painting. If Canyonlands won't wow you with its narrative or educational content, it will with its visuals and that's what ultimately makes this worth your while.
Canyonlands debuts on Blu-ray in a 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen VC-1 encoded 1080i high definition transfer that generally looks very good. Some scenes are a bit softer than others but for the most part, the transfer is sharp and offers excellent color reproduction and strong detail levels. Some of the shots taken from above the parklands are breathtaking as they really give you a sense just how huge this area is and how unique its topography is. The color scheme is limited by the area in that it's heavy on dusty browns, yellows and reds but we get some nice contrast from the green that sprouts up around the river bed and from the bright blue skies overhead. There's a little bit of shimmer here and there and sometimes the environment doesn't always lend itself to the most ideal filming circumstances, but it's hard not to walk away from this one impressed.
The sole audio option on this release is a standard definition Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix, with optional subtitles provided in English only. There aren't any problems with hiss or distortion or with odd level fluctuations, and the track is well encoded, but this is primarily narration based so don't expect continuous surround activity. The rear channels do kick in nicely here and there, generally when the music kicks in but also during the scenes where we voyage down the river into the rapids, but this is certainly a more relaxed track than it could have been. The narration always sounds clean and clear, though, and there aren't any problems to report.
There isn't much here in the way of extra content. Aside from menus and chapter stops, there are previews for three other National Geographic home video releases and two bonus programs: Wild Chronicles: Colorado Mountain Lions and Wild Chronicles: Yellowstone River. Neither one of these Wild Chronicles segments runs for more than eight minutes so they don't go all that in depth. They do contain some nice footage of their respective subjects and are worth watching for that reason but they really just skim the surface.
While it's light on extra features and the main attraction itself isn't all that mentally stimulating, there's enough fantastic eye candy on display in Canyonlands that nature documentary junkies will appreciate the visuals if nothing else. A bit more history of the area and how the park came to be might have fleshed things out and more for a more interesting context, but as it stands, this short feature succeeds in giving us a bird's eye view of one of the most geographically unique areas of The United States. Recommended for those with an interest in the subject, a solid rental for everyone else.
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.