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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Living Planet - A Portrait of the Earth
The Living Planet - A Portrait of the Earth
Ventura // Unrated // November 4, 2003
List Price: $49.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted December 28, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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The movie

David Attenborough has a penchant for tackling large, ambitious projects: birds, in The Life of Birds, and mammals in The Life of Mammals. The Living Planet is even broader, focusing not on a single category of living beings but on the planet as a whole, ecosystem by ecosystem. And, as with his other grand projects, Attenborough makes The Living Planet a resounding success. The Living Planet is broad in scope, ranging across the entire globe, and it's also very focused within each episode, moving beyond generalities to show the details of how an ecosystem works and how the living beings within it live, reproduce, and die.

In twelve hour-long episodes, we explore every corner of the planet and learn how life has taken hold and flourished there. "Sweet Fresh Water" shows the path that water takes from its source to the ocean, and examines all the diverse habitats formed along the way, and the many creatures who depend on the river for food and shelter. "Jungle" takes us into the ancient rainforests with its immense biodiversity. "The Open Ocean" focuses on the life of the oceans, and "The Northern Forests" explores the band of coniferous forest that girdles the globe just under the Arctic circle. "Seas of Grass" examines the vast savannahs of Africa, North America, and South America, "The Frozen World" looks at life in the polar regions, and "The Margins of the Land" focuses on the ecosystems that are formed where the sea meets the land. "The Sky Above" shows us the variety of living beings in the open air, from the tiniest beings to powerful birds, and "The Baking Deserts" shows us how life manages to survive in the harsh deserts of the world. On the final DVD of the set, "Worlds Apart" looks at isolated ecosystems where species have been left to develop in unique ways, "The Building of the Earth" examines the life around volcanic eruptions, and "New Worlds" wraps up the series with a thoughtful examination of how humans have shaped the "living planet"... and what the price of our careless actions may be.

The Living Planet is outstanding on several counts, the first being the quality of the content. Attenborough has an unerring eye for finding the most fascinating aspects of nature and, what's even more important, sharing them with the viewer in a clear, easily understandable, and interesting way. There's never the sense that he's lecturing; The Living Planet is never dry in the least. But neither is there the sense that he's playing up the more spectacular images or sensationalizing anything in the least: The Living Planet is clearly aimed at an intelligent, interested viewer, one who appreciates Attenborough's fundamental assumption that the world all around us is fascinating and rich.

Attenborough might be our favorite uncle, sharing his love of nature with us; he speaks directly to us as people, not as an abstract "audience," and his love of learning and exploring is contagious. His presence in the documentary itself, as an actual participant rather than just a disembodied voice, may seem odd at first to those who are used to a narrator-only style of documentaries, but it works very well: not only does he put a human face on the program, but his presence lets us see things at the human scale... which often makes an already impressive image positively jaw-dropping, as we see just how wide a roaring river actually is, or tall the California sequoias really are.

The second outstanding feature of The Living Planet is its organization, which is always meaningful and clear. It's very easy for a nature documentary to fall into a wandering "look at these neat animals" approach, but The Living Planet never falls into that trap. As an overall series, it follows a clear structure of examining the different ecosystems found across the Earth; each individual episode focuses on one specific area in detail.

Attenborough makes excellent use of this ecosystem-centered approach throughout the series. As we learn about a particular type of habitat – rain forest, for instance – we frequently cross geographical boundaries. Far from confusing the issue, this makes Attenborough's points much clearer. Instead of discussing the African and South American rain forests as two entirely different areas, Attenborough shows us that they're essentially the same: that there are different species of birds over-flying the canopy, and different species of tiny mammals rustling through the leaf litter, but in both cases their roles are the same, as top predator in one case and insect-eater in the other. The result is that we come away from an episode of The Living Planet with a clear understanding and appreciation of the habitat that we've just explored.

Then within each episode, Attenborough follows a clear organization that allows the viewer to understand and appreciate the information that's presented. What's particularly impressive Attenborough chooses a logical structure for each episode based on its content, so while each episode is structured a bit differently, it's exactly right for each one. For instance, in the first episode, "Sweet Fresh Water," the episode follows the course of water from high to low, from its origins in the mountains to its eventual end in the ocean. "The Northern Forests" follows the cycle of the seasons, showing the changes in plant and animal life as winter turns to summer and then to winter again. And in the seasonless "Jungle," Attenborough takes us through the rain forest from top to bottom, revealing the different layers of life from the canopy to the leaf litter. In every case, the structure is natural and the progress of the episode from beginning to end is smooth and captivating.

The DVD

The Living Planet is a four-DVD set, packaged in a very attractively designed fold-out cardboard holder that is enclosed in a sturdy glossy cardboard slipcase.

Video

The one weakness of The Living Planet is that its image quality is not what I'd hoped for. The twenty-year-old series shows its age, as well as the lack of a thorough restoration, with a generally soft image that has a substantial amount of grain, print flaws, and edge enhancement. Some slight distortion in the image appears at times but is mainly restricted to the title sequence (fortunately, the image quality of the episodes itself is better than that of the credits). Colors are natural-looking but lack a certain vibrancy.

However, the series is still completely watchable, and as long as you cut it some slack for age, you'll soon forget about the appearance of the image and concentrate on the amazing content of the program. On the bright side, contrast and shading are handled well overall, and close-up shots look reasonably good. The Living Planet is presented in its original television aspect ratio of 1.33:1.

Audio

The 2.0 soundtrack for The Living Planet is fairly straightforward, but it gets the job done. David Attenborough's narrative voice is clear and easy to understand in all the episodes, which is the most important aspect of the soundtrack. Admittedly, after watching The Life of Mammals as an example of outstanding sound in a documentary, it's clear that more could have been done with the sound here, but what we get is perfectly fine, especially given that The Living Planet was made in 1984. Opinions may vary on the quality of the music (I found it to be alternately forgettable or completely cheesy) but it is balanced correctly with Attenborough's voice, and volume levels are always handled correctly as well.

Extras

There are no special features in this set, which makes the label "Over 12 hours long" on the DVD packaging rather odd: the twelve episodes make for almost 12 hours of footage, but no more, so I'm not sure where the "over" comes from.

An insert booklet with a summary of each episode is also included. The menus are straightforward and easy to use.

Final thoughts

If you have any spark of curiosity about the world around you, then you will find The Living Planet to be completely captivating. Intelligent, insightful, superbly organized, and narrated by the always engaging David Attenborough, The Living Planet is a great documentary series that has aged very well, and is sure to fascinate both adults and younger viewers. If you enjoyed The Life of Mammals, you'll certainly enjoy this set, and vice versa. It's highly recommended.

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