As a critic, one can never underestimate the value of paying attention. Take America's National Treasures, for example. The minute it appeared in the review queue, yours truly jumped on it, the remotest part of his brain remembering something about Ken Burns, PBS, and a tour of the country's incontrovertible National Parks. As he had done with The Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, the diminutive documentarian promised a breathtaking overview of turn of the century President Teddy Roosevelt's greatest living achievement - and by all accounts, he delivered said statement, a rich pageant of the USA's topographical legacy. Except - America's National Treasures ain't it. No, this is not the Ken Burns film(s) at all. Instead, it's a collection of educational travelogues originally entitled America's National Monuments and then relabeled for some inexplicable reason. This is not to say that what we have here is a worthless compendium of classroom overviews - but it's damn close...beautiful to look at but damn close.
Dividing the material by region and haphazard historic context, we get 12 episodes of this series further subdivided by core concept and individual locations. Each monument is then discussed from various angles (historical perspective, scientific overview, individual facts). The substance is narrated, with occasional input from park rangers, experts, and other scholars. There are even diagrams and illustrations explaining the various import and place within the nation's past. The following is the listing found on the outside of the DVDs. Oddly enough, they don't seem to follow the actual presentation once the discs start. All 12 volumes cover a wide variety of topics, so the below information accurately indicates what you can expect in each episode.
Legacy of the Great Plains (All narrated by Bo Svenson):
Volume 1: Geological Wonders of the Northern Plains (Devil's Tower, Jewel Cave, Agate Fossil Beds)
Volume 2: Sioux Indian Wars (Pipestone, Little Big Horn) (Alibates, Capulin Volcano, Fort Union)
Volume 3: Manifest Destiny (Scott's Bluff, Homestead)
Volume 4: The Southern Plains (Alibates, Capulin Volcano, Fort Union)
The Historic South (All narrated by Jordan Murphy)
Volume 5: Prehistoric Native Americas (Poverty Point, Russell Cave, Ocmulgee)
Volume 6: Southern Spanish Colonies (Fort Matanzas and Castillo De San Marcos, Fort Frederica)
Volume 7: Slavery and the Plantation System (Buck Island Reef and Virgin Islands Coral Reef, George Washington's Birthplace)
Volume 8: Civil War and the Confederacy (George Washington Carver, Fort Sumter, Fort Pulaski)
The Geological West (All narrated by Jordan Murphy)
Volume 9: Fossil Treasures of the Pacific Northwest (Hagerman Fossil Beds, John Day Fossil Beds, Fossil Butte)
Volume 10: The Pacific Northwest's Ring of Fire (Pinnacles, Crates of the Moon, Devil's Postpile)
Volume 11: The Historic Pacific Northwest (Lava Beds, Muir Woods, Minidoka Internment)
Volume 12: The Great Biodiversity of the Pacific Northwest (Cabrillo, Oregon Caves)
Have you ever been to one of America's National Parks. Ever stood in line to see some natural wonder like Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon, or the Giant Redwoods of California? Ever marvel at the St. Louis Arch or the Statue of Liberty? Now, do you remember the anticipatory let down when the accompanying museum or complementary exhibit was nothing more than endless hours of the most dull educational twaddle our Congress ever approved for viewing? If you've sat through one of these poorly acted and flatly directed animated film strips, you'll get a sense of what America's National Treasures (actually known as America's National Monuments outside the Blu-ray compilation setting) has to offer. This is eggheaded brainac bullspit, clearly designed as a teaching tool for clueless kids all across our purple mountain's majesty. Heck, the digital package even includes the dinosaur like Rom option, within which you will find a wide array of teaching aides, learning devices, and other material to make the experience that much more uninviting. If you can ignore the classroom angle, you will enjoy yourself, but it will be a hard slog to get to those amber waves of entertainment.
Again, this is an occasionally stunning presentation to watch. The high definition image is served well here, the vast landscapes and intricate details discusses coming across in panoramic wonderment. Right from the start, places like Devil's Tower and Jewel Cave are seen as truly epic, and even many of the Forts find a way to transform from artifact to awe-inspiring. Many of the locations are sacred to Native Americans and it's nice to see their interests and values served and the entire section of the Civil War and the Confederacy doesn't try to rewrite the realities of either. Still, by the time one gets to Disc 2 and plows their way through all seven hours here, the redundancy gets to be a bit much. After all, if you've seen one autumnal colored wood loaded with so much local and seasonal flavor that you can practically taste the Hot Dr. Pepper (with an accompanying cinnamon stick), you've seen them all. This is especially true of the plains sequences which seem to only focus on fossil beds, jagged rocks, and the various ways to optically represent both. Accompanying it all, we get a few talking head, rangers and their scholarly equals spouting off about one unknown fact or another. It's these in between element that turns things from astonishing to arid.
So does the overall style and approach. Each monument is divided up into easy to digest, child friendly ADD avoiding segments. We just get into one part of the "story" and - ZOOM!!! - we're into the scientific technical stuff. There is very little backstory provided. We never really learn why certain Presidents picked some of these spots, and considering the almost pointlessness of a couple, a little support would be helpful. Also, the decision to make this more a teaching experience than an entertainment experience really does undercut the effectiveness. The narration is often corny and cloying, adding gravitas to situations and locations that frankly don't need it. Also, one can't help but feel that the producers were hoping to kill two birds with one stone. One can easily see America's National Treasures being adopted by local parks and recreation services, as well as numerous school districts, turning something not really oriented for audiences into mandatory viewing. Many will feel these comments are too critical and harsh. After all, this is merely an amenable piece of USA prettiness. Too bad they couldn't have added some fun to it as well.
As 1080p encoded images go, the widescreen vistas of America's National Treasures look stunning. There is a real depth to the picture and more intricate elements than you could care to name. The colors are bright and nicely balanced and the mostly exterior shoots make wonderful use of natural light. The direct from video transfer also helps retain much of the visual power on display here. When the camera focuses in on a flower bed, or a particularly moving horizon, you can feel the lump in your throat growing. While the information may not be wholly enjoyable, the optical element sure is. It helps that the original material was all filmed in HD.
Nothing novel or new to report here. The musical backing is blah, the narration emotionless and without nuance. Even the presentation, a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix is mundane in its front-ccentric tendencies. All the channels are not used and there are few directional or immersive qualities. There is no lossless HD offering or any other kind of aural tweaking. Basically, we get a standard sonic situation which makes little use of the updated format or its technology.
Here is a list of the ROM materials found on here:
Blackline Master Quizzes
Directions to Monuments
Plains National Monuments by Date founded
Plains National Monuments by State
Plains National Monuments by President with biographies and pictures
Printable Screen savers from each of the monuments in the series
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
National Historic Preservation Act of 1966
National Antiquities Act 1906
Homestead Act 1862
Archaeological Resources Protection Act
Since it's not really geared for pure home video entertainment, America's National Treasures is a hard title to wholly advocate - especially in light of what Ken Burns did with the same relative subject. Still, there is so much here to enjoy from a pure picture standpoint that one has to err on the side of such visuals. As a result, this relatively light Blu-ray package gets an unenthusiastic Recommended rating. If you're an educator or a student of the National Monuments, you will enjoy the dry, detailed information offered. If you're looking for a little pizzazz - forget it. Of course, the big lesson here is be careful what you request from your title pool. Sometimes, what sounds like a relaxing, recreational journey through the heart of this formidable nation ends up being a protracted bit of high school class work.
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