Produced by Alastair Fothergill and Vanessa Berlowitz, who previously produced the highly lauded series The Blue Planet and Planet Earth, 2011's Frozen Planet takes the same classy approach that those earlier series used so well and brings it to the Earth's coldest locations, the Arctic and Antarctic, for an amazing look at the animals that live there. Once again narrated with a ridiculous amount of class and smarts by the great David Attenborough (who actually appears on camera on location a few times throughout the series), the series is split into seven parts as follows:
To The Ends Of The Earth: The first episode gives us a nice, general overview of the two areas that the rest of the series is going to cover, and a sort of top down look at the species that populate it and how the topography of the Earth in these areas not only differs from the rest of the planet but also how it has such a huge effect on it. We see glaciers let loose with amazing force, we witness the rare mating of two polar bears and we see a pack of killer whales work together to hunt a seal.
Spring: As the weather begins to warm a little bit in Antarctica, Adelie Penguins begin to take over its shoreline just as winds of up to one hundred miles an hour make it difficult for them to build and protect the rock nests they'll need to attract the soon to be arriving females. In other parts of the area, male seals face off for king status on the beach to control which females they can mate with while Albatross reunite with their mates from years past and carry on relationships that can last a half a century. Narhwals make their way through passages in the broken ice to find food while a mother polar bear tries to hunt to feed her two young cubs who are more interested in playing rambunctiously than in trying to stay as quiet as she needs them to be.
Summer: The mother polar bear and her cubs start the summer off with some swimming lessons though the cubs, getting very big very quickly, would rather spend their time on land. Hordes of massive beluga whales show up off the coast to enjoy the warmer waters and feed. A large pack of wolves track a horde of Oxen hoping to pick off a calf to bring back to the den to feed their cubs with while in the Antarctic the mating rituals of seals are documented as the males of the species battle it out to win the females. Oxen too get up to some strange behavior, with the males of the species ramming into each other head first and locking horns to figure out who is in charge while leopard seals wait patiently for freshly hatched penguins to hit the water so that they too can feed. Summer is fleeting in these territories and the animals make the most of it
Autumn: As summer winds down, we get to see how various species start to prepare for the coming winter, how the landscape starts to change and how different animals in the area adapt to the change that they instinctively know is coming. The polar bear cubs grow larger and more independent, whales head inland before moving out of the area and migratory birds begin to chart their course for their winter destination. Penguin chicks born just a few months before start to get closer in size to their parents all the while the episode makes it clear through shots of wind picking up steam and snow starting to increase that things are about to get a whole lot tougher very soon.
Winter: Not surprisingly, winter is the harshest time for everything that lives in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The weather becomes insanely cold and the winds strong as well. Some species will hibernate, some will not - like the wolves that call the area home and who dig beneath the massive waves of snow in search of whatever food they can scrounge up. Small weasels create an impressive series of tunnels through the snow through which they travel and through which they manage to catch voles (they look like hamsters sort of). The aforementioned wolves go after oxen again, but again, they run into resistance from the heard that intends to do whatever they need to do to protect their calves, while Emperor Penguins do everything they can to protect their eggs from the fierce weather conditions, highlighted by some amazing footage of a polar storm. We also see what happens under the water, the surface covered with ice but the ocean floor teaming with life, and witness some owls doing their best to survive the conditions.
The Last Frontier: This sixth episode takes a look at how the polar regions are more hostile to life than any other part of the planet and how humans have adopted to this area. We learn what keeps people coming back to these areas, to study and to live, and what it is like to live in a part of the world where you have to go three entire months without seeing the sun rise even once. Shifting sea ice can cause problems for man and animal alike while the changing seasons result in some rather creative hunting tactics that people have had to invent to survive. We see how members of the Danish Special Forces train in the area and how dogs are used throughout the area in various ways.
On Thin Ice: This last episode takes a look at how climate change is affecting the people and the animals of our planet and more specifically how it is affecting the polar regions. Discussed here are causes as well as symptoms and there's some interesting and periodically frightening speculation given as to what might happen if this continues.
The BBC have set the bar very high in regards to nature documentaries and as such, they've got a lot to live up to. Planet Earth is rightly regarded as a masterpiece and follow up projects like Life and Human Planet as well as various one offs have been almost as good. Frozen Planet definitely ranks up there with the best that this group has had to offer so far - if it isn't as good as Planet Earth it's very, very close to it not only in terms of the remarkable amount of amazing footage that the camera crews have captured, but also in terms of how emotionally involving so much of this can be. As you watch, for example, the scene where the wolf pack hunts the oxen hoping to snipe off the young calf, you want the oxen to get away but then, once it does, and you realize that the wolves haven't got the meat they need to feed their cubs (which, of course, we see frolicking like little cute and playful little puppy dogs outside the den), your emotions swing to side with the wolves. The series is full of interesting moments like that, which really make you think about the circle of life and the cruel and beautiful reality of the natural world.
Throughout all of the beauty and tragedy, humor and just plain old snippets of life on display here, we're treated to loads of amazing camera work capturing all manner of amazing events in high definition with remarkable detail, depth and clarity. It's all set to a beautiful instrumental score that compliments the drama and the wonder perfectly and which sets itself as a nice emotive contrast to the very matter of fact (but also very informative and wholly appropriate) narration. Rarely does 'edutainment' work as well as it does here, but Frozen Planet is, quite simply, an excellent piece of work and absolutely worth seeing.
Frozen Planet arrives on Blu-ray in a 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen 1080i high definition AVC encoded transfer that is, unfortunately, just a little bit inconsistent based on the fact that a few different cameras were used for the shoot. There are a lot of shots in this set that will blow you away with crystal clear clarity and a remarkable amount of fine detail and then there are shots that look soft a don't impress quite as much. Thankfully the vast majority of the material here really looks fantastic, which makes the softer bits all the more noticeable even if they are the exception and not the rule. Color reproduction is generally beautiful, with the crisp whites of the snow looking almost blinding, making it easy to spot the various creatures that populate its landscape. Close up shots are almost always impressive, be it a face first view looking straight into the eyes of a penguin protecting his nest or a shot of a Killer Whale popping out of the sea chasing a seal. The landscapes are all reproduced without anything but the most minor shimmer and there weren't any obvious compression artifacts of note. Some might gripe about the 1080i versus 1080p issue, but no obvious interlacing issues popped up at all during playback. Minor nitpicks aside, Frozen Planet looks very, very good on Blu-ray.
Most of the past BBC Nature documentaries have featured lossy soundtracks but not Frozen Planet, this time around we get a rock solid DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix that presents David Attenborough classy narration with perfect clarity and while really does some amazing things by spreading out the instrumental score through all channels in your surround sound system. Levels are nicely balanced and outside of some wind related spikes here and there that probably couldn't have been avoided, things sound excellent. The various noises made by the animals that the crews follow around sound good and add to the reality of it all, but really, it's the score here that impresses the most - you can make out each not of each instrument as it plays out and it really goes a long way towards heightening the emotional impact of certain scenes. Optional subtitles are available in English, Spanish and Canadian French and an optional dubbed track is available in Parisian French.
At the end of each of the seven episode that make up the series is a quick Making Of bit called Freeze Frame. These are definitely worth watching as they show some pretty interesting stories as to how this material was made. Stuff you and I probably don't think about often comes into play, like what would happen if you got stuck in a cabin surround by 100mph winds with your gear outside or how to get as close to a Killer Whale as possible without endangering yourself, and as such, they make for interesting little vignettes.
On the third disc in the set are a few other extras, starting with Science at the Ends of the Earth gives us some insight into what all is happening in terms of what various scientific communities are up to in the South Pole while the Production Video Diaries, made up of a whopping forty-seven video shorts shot by the crew of Frozen Planet while it was in production, over a detailed look into just how much work went into completing this series. This is generally pretty interesting stuff, occasionally riveting even. Less necessary is the Frozen Planet: The Epic Journey feature, which is a collection of some of the more impressive moments from the seven episodes re-cut into an hour long highlight reel. This could be handy if you just want something to put on to impress those with a casual interest in the material, but to get the full impact of just how great this series is, you really need to sit down and go through each one of the seven episodes. An isolated score option is also provided if you want to watch the episodes without narration.
The BBC have once again set the standard for nature documentaries with Frozen Planet, a riveting and beautiful series that takes us to places we'll probably never get to go and gives us a bird's eye view into what makes them as fascinating, dangerous and beautiful as they are. As glorious as the series is to look at, it's equally fascinating for what it can teach us not just in terms of zoology but also in terms of environmental studies. The transfer is very strong, the audio is excellent and the extras are pretty solid too. Overall, this is a great release and comes highly recommended.
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.