Many nature documentaries, despite their level of ambition or scope, are often seen as little more than slideshows of desktop wallpaper. Of course, their images are designed to transport viewers to scenic locales they'll likely never see in person, yet only the best nature documentaries manage to educate and enlighten viewers in the process. Originally filmed for IMAX theaters, The Greatest Places (1998) is working with a tough handicap: limited to just 40 minutes in length, it attempts to show us seven of the world's most diverse landscapes before the credits roll. Our destinations include Madagascar, the mountains of Tibet, Iguazu Falls in Brazil, the mighty Amazon River, Botswana's Okavango Delta, the icy shores of Greenland and the Namib Desert in Angola.
Of course, you don't have to be a math major to figure out that these seven locales only get about five minutes apiece...and for that reason alone, anyone expecting an in-depth production should look elsewhere. The Greatest Places barely scratches the surface of each landscape it shows us, often pairing a quick overview with a few cutaway shots of cute animals and scenic views. Madagascar, our first destination, is touted as having one of the planet's most diverse levels of species, yet we see less than half a dozen before we're whisked away. It almost plays like a series of trailers for bigger, better documentaries (which are out there, for the most part)---and while this lightning-fast presentation style is implied by the description and running time, it still feels disappointing in hindsight.
Narrated by Avery Brooks (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, American History X), The Greatest Places is lightweight documentary film-making done on a large scale. Obviously the visuals are the draw here...and from that perspective, it manages to succeed on a basic level. From an optimist's viewpoint, The Greatest Places is an ideal stepping stone to more in-depth features like Planet Earth (or even more focused IMAX productions like Everest), but those expecting anything more than a quick run-through of beautiful landscapes will walk away disappointed. Speaking of which, this Blu-Ray is actually a perfect reflection of the main feature: the A/V quality is fantastic, but there's very little to dig through after the show's over. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer is just as good as expected: colors are bold and natural, black levels are crisp and overhead wide shots reveal a tremendous amount of fine detail. Digital problems, such as edge enhancement and pixellation, are kept to a minimum, though small amounts of noise can be spotted on occasion. For a naturally-lit, on-the-fly documentary such as this one, it looks amazing (and for my money, better than Planet Earth).
The DTS-HD Master Audio track (available in English or French) is no slouch, either. Atmospheric effects are strong and incredibly lifelike, especially during the Iguazu Falls and Amazon River segments. Birds and other "background characters" also creep into the rear channels on occasion. Avery Brooks' narration is clean and rarely fights for attention during this documentary...which is good, because no subtitles or Closed Captions are offered during the main feature.
The Greatest Places isn't exactly top-shelf IMAX fare, but nature lovers will enjoy giving it a once-over. This globe-trotting documentary attempts to cover way too much ground in less than 40 minutes, yet it still feels like it's stretching itself thin at times. The excellent A/V presentation is supported well by this Blu-Ray release...which, at the very least, makes for an accessible and family-friendly demo disc. On all other grounds, however, The Greatest Places isn't quite strong enough to recommend as a stand-alone purchase. Rent It first, unless you're a rabid IMAX completist.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.