The BBC High Definition Natural History Collection
BBC Worldwide // Unrated // $179.98 // August 5, 2008
Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted August 30, 2008
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The Movie:
Cynics may decry BBC Home Video for taking a cue from Disney and re-re-releasing certain titles in various compilation collections, but anyone looking for some of the most amazing high definition video ever shot had better think twice before complaining about this newest boxed set, The BBC High Definition Natural History Collection, featuring previously released (and re-released, and re-re-released in some cases) standalone Blu-Ray titles "Planet Earth," "Galapagos," "Wild China," and "Ganges." Only "Planet Earth" was old hat to me, but revisiting it in high-def, with the incredible new to me other three features, literally left me regularly breathless, and I more than once heard myself emitting "wow" or "unbelievable" as a panoply of jaw dropping images floated over my television.

Note: Some of "Planet Earth"'s content review repeats information from my SD review.

Planet Earth

Overview:

This remarkable series quickly became the gold standard of high-def documentaries when it premiered on The Discovery Channel a couple of years ago, followed by its overwhelming success as a standard def DVD and then one of the few initial DVDs released both in HD-DVD and Blu-Ray formats. In fact, it was one of the few major sets whose HD-DVD sales outshone its Blu-Ray numbers. I had previously stated that the SD release of this remarkable series looked about as good as any SD release could, especially when viewed on an upconverting player. I stand by that assessment, but I have to state now that after having seen the Blu-Ray presentation, there is a noticeable increase in visual detail, making this the "gold standard" of Blu-Ray releases, with the kind of reference quality visual material that videophiles lust after.

This series runs the gamut from pole to pole (actually the name of the first episode), with virtually every place in between, covering 60-plus countries and countless ecosystems. We are treated to such an amazing variety of life that it is almost overwhelming at times: while the other series in this set tend to focus on certain discrete elements of the planet (animals, birds, sea life), Planet Earth is notable in that it attempts, and largely succeeds, in taking in everything. Therefore, you not only get animals and birds galore but also the environments in which they live. Most episodes concentrate on particular types of environments (e.g., "Mountains," "Deserts," and "Caves"), but treat their subjects on a global scale, so that any one episode will span relevant information from areas as remote as the Amazon and the Sahara, while also highlighting the various living creatures that inhabit these areas.

These BBC documentaries have always had both a visual flair and an unerringly well thought out flow of information (largely due, I suspect, to writer and narrator David Attenborough's simply meticulous understanding of his various subjects), but Planet Earth takes these elements to a whole new level, no doubt aided, visually at least, by being filmed in high definition. Whether we are watching polar bears frolic in the arctic wilderness or journeying beneath the ocean for a rare glimpse at the incredible variety of sealife that virtually no one has ever seen before, Planet Earth offers one dazzling vista after another, all (with very rare exceptions) presented in a gorgeously crisp presentation that will more than occasionally make your eyes bug out of your head.

Contents Summary:

"From Pole to Pole" is an all-encompassing introduction to what you'll see in subsequent episodes (keep your eye out for the Amur leopards, which are close to extinction). "Mountains" boasts some beautiful aerial footage of the world's most impressive peaks, and "Fresh Water" serves as an interesting companion piece to "Oceans Deep." I had no idea so little of the water on our planet was of the fresh variety. The aerial footage in this episode is also spectacular, especially Angel Falls, the world's tallest waterfall (at over 3000 feet) in Venezuela. Some extremely rare footage in "Caves" was taken in a New Mexico cave with formations sculpted by sulphuric acid. There's also "Deserts," which spans the globe and finds a surprising number of denizens who like hot arid conditions, as well as (for contrast's sake) "Worlds of Ice," which had one of my favorite sequences in the whole series, a really nifty looking time lapse segment showing the changing topography of Antarctica through the seasons. "Great Plains," which, despite its title, actually focuses more on such locales as Eurasia and the Indian subcontinent than the mid-section of the United States, includes some gut-wrenching footage of a nighttime lion attack, courtesy of "night vision" infrared cameras. Next up is "Jungles," which is fun to compare to some of the episodes of BBC's Life of Birds, since it features the abundant variety of winged creatures that inhabit our more densely wooded planetary areas. "Shallow Seas" points the way toward BBC's Blue Planet with its exploration of undersea life close to the coasts of continents. Because this episode doesn't venture into the dark and murky depths like some of Blue Planet's episodes, we are given a really clear view of some amazing footage, including some great shots of humpback whales. A stunning look at my particular neck of the woods (literally), the Pacific Northwest, is given in "Seasonal Forests." While I personally would have appreciated a more leisurely trek through not only the rain forests that dot Washington and Oregon, but also the Sequoias and Redwoods of Northern California, the episode does a thorough job of visiting locales around the globe, including the east coast of the United States and Siberia. The final regular episode is "Ocean Deep" which obviously paves the way for the more in-depth (no pun intended) Blue Planet, but which manages to survey a vast array of sealife in its 50-plus minutes.

Extras: In about the only thing to complain about in this remarkable boxed set, the Blu-Ray release of Planet Earth contains none of the brilliant extras that supplemented the SD release.

Wild China

Overview:

This stunningly gorgeous six part series was filmed to capitalize on growing attention toward Asia with the then imminent 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. As might be expected, the series focuses largely on agrarian and wildlife aspects of this immense country, but does deal with the sad, steady encroachment of civilization, especially as it impacts certain species like the giant pandas. What it manages to largely avoid is any real commentary about China's various political upheavals and its still developing relationship with capitalism. As in all BBC Natural History documentaries, there's simply one breathtaking vista after another, from China's distinctive "humpback" mountains shrouded in mist, to various rice paddies literally carved into cliffs. Add in Bernard Hill's authoritative yet low-key narration, and you have a remarkable piece of documentary filmmaking.

Part of the allure of this series is, in fact, watching ancient modes of farming and living in general still being practiced in the 21st century. It's fascinating to see cliff-dwelling peoples forced to use "zip lines" made of rope to zoom over rivers to get to market, or, even more amazingly, fishermen with trained cormorants who do their fishing for them (animal cruelty types will probably not be happy with the strings tied around the birds' necks to keep them from swallowing their catch). It's the dichotomy between these "backwoods" peoples and the almost obscenely industrial presence of the large urban centers of China which gives this piece a lot of its interest.

Contents Summary:

While perhaps lacking the epic sweep of Planet Earth, the six episodes of Wild China nonetheless run the gamut of environments and peoples that the continent spanning country contains. "Heart of the Dragon" focuses on various farming and fishing enterprises, including the paddies and cormorants mentioned above. Lovers of James Hilton's "Lost Horizon" will be swept away by "Shangri-La," at least for moment, as it journeys from the peaks of the Himalayas to the vast stretches of the Yunnan Province, detailing the many fascinating (and unexpected) species that inhabit the region. This episode is the first to delve into the problem of urban encroachment. It may be a little surprising that the BBC chooses to pretty much completely ignore the political subtext swirling under the hugely variant ecosystems of "Tibet," but if you are able to forgive that lapse, this episode is full of remarkable portraits of a country filled not only with an absolutely remarkable array of wildlife, but with the equally fascinating human Buddhists that inhabit various mountaintop temples. "Beyond the Great Wall" gives a cursory look at the gigantic structure itself, but, more interestingly perhaps, journeys north to visit the various nomadic peoples who are able to make their homes in at times inhospitable environments. A sort of mirror image to the trained cormorants of Episode 1 show up in this episode with some trained eagles, who are able to hunt for their masters. "Land of the Panda" probably gives the most in-depth look at the dialectic between wildlife and man in this series, as various beasts find their habitats increasingly destroyed by the supposed march of progress. Finally concentrating, if only tangentially, on China's somewhat tortured political and economic history, this episode tries at least to tie China's natural history into its sociopolitical story. Up last is "Tides of Change," focusing on China's vast coastal areas and the various kinds of fishermen who attempt to eke out a living by harvesting various sea creatures.

Extras: Wild China offers a half hour or so behind the scenes featurette entitled "Hunting Dragons," which shows the Herculean efforts the camera and production crews need to go through to get even one fleeting shot.

Galapagos

Overview:

Probably the most famous island chain in the world, at least to followers of Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection, the Galapagos get a sterling treatment in this brilliant three part series. Quite possibly the most mind boggling of all the series included in this set, if only for the variety of life shown, Galapagos imparts a virtually unending series of fascinating factoids courtesy of Tilda Swinton's dulcet narration. I had no idea that the islands themselves show an evolutionary timeline, as they are all slowly moving southeast due to continental shift, and therefore show the slow, steady progression of millennia, with those furthest southeast being the oldest, and those closer to the volcanic hotspot that gave them all birth being the newest.

Contents Summary:

You might think that the relative shortform of this documentary would mean a paucity of material, but that's really not the case. Though the three episodes are more interwoven than in the other series included in this boxed set, they each provide an in-depth look at both the evolutionary forces at play within the islands themselves, and the many one-of-a-kind species that inhabit various individual islands. "Born of Fire" gives a neat background into the volcanic genesis of the entire chain, "Islands that Changed the World" focuses on Darwin's exploration of the islands and the theories he developed after having investigated them so thoroughly, and "Forces of Change" weaves those two strands together by showing what has happened on the islands, both individually and collectively, over untold thousands of years.

Extras: None are offered.

Ganges

Overview:

Like Galapagos, Ganges offers a three-part documentary focusing on India and its famous river which is viewed as a living deity. The first thing that may come as a surprise to some viewers, as it did to me, is the amazing diversity of the Ganges itself. Having seen many documentaries where the urban areas that intersect with the water source have been shown, not always to shall we say hygienic effect, it was illuminating to see the river spring from the frozen heights of the Himalayas and to also see its many pristine (if at times muddy) areas, many replete with an amazing array of fishlife. Ganges, narrated by Sudha Bhuchar (who can be just the tiniest bit hard to discern at times), also provides an involving history lesson into India's religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, always centered around the amazing river which has served as its spiritual focus since time immemorial.

Contents Summary:

"Daughters of the Mountains" leads off this piece with some beautiful footage of the amazing Himalayas, where the Ganges finds its headwaters. This episode follows the river downstream to a holy city and helps describe the mystical kinship the Indian people feel with this "source of life." Troubling pollution starts to rear its literally ugly head in "River of Life," which looks like some of the other more common documentaries I mention above. The intersection of civilization with this age-old river has not always been comfortable, and this episode delves into the problems that Indians are now facing with a very dirty water supply. Last up is "Waterland," which follows the Ganges as it finally spills out into the Bay of Bengal. This episode is also rife with troubling information, from the near extinction of Bengalese tigers to the devastating effects of overpopulation next to the rivers' many deltas.

Extras: Two quite excellent extras are offered on Ganges, the first another interesting behind-the-scenes featurette (with a nifty little segment on time-lapse photography), and some deleted scenes, most of which actually feature people in various time honored pursuits, rather than wildlife.

The Blu-Ray Discs

Video:
All of these reference quality Blu-Rays feature 1080i/VC-1 transfers (except Planet Earth, which is 1080p) that are simply awe inspiring. Detail is so amazingly sharp at times that you will be left breathless. Colors are strong, and even in some of the mist-laden vistas of Wild China, the sharpness of the images are amazing. There are no compression artifacts as in the SD release of Planet Earth, and you will be wanting to show off these splendid documentaries to anyone you know who hasn't yet experienced the wonder of high definition.

Sound:
No lossless audio options here, but it really isn't a detriment. The DD 5.1 soundtracks on Planet Earth and Wild China, as well as the DTS 5.1 of Ganges, are wonderfully realized. Even the relatively minimal DD 2.0 mix of Galapagos is excellent. Not a lot of rear channel on the 5.1 mixes is utilized, but narration is always crisp and clear and the underscore and live sound are always mixed beautifully. All of the documentaries feature English subtitles. Otherwise, Planet Earth offers French and Spanish subtitles, Wild China offers Mandarin subtitles, Ganges offers both Hindi and Bengal DD 2.0 mixes.

Final Thoughts:
Wow. Unbelievable. Not much more can be said, other than that this BBC High Definition Natural History Collection is easily a DVD Talk Collectors Series title.



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