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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Moby Dick - The True Story
Moby Dick - The True Story
Artisan // Unrated // July 23, 2002
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted August 14, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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I've read Moby Dick (yes, the whole thing, and yes, for my own enjoyment) and found it to be an interesting novel, if not one that knocked me off my feet. Melville just isn't one of my favorite 19th-century novelists, but he certainly spun an epic tale with memorable characters that have gained a life of their own. Who doesn't know about mad Captain Ahab and his quest for the great white whale? What I didn't know was that Melville's novel was inspired by a true story, that of the Nantucket whaling ship Essex, sunk in 1820 by a sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean. It's the latter tale that Moby Dick: A True Story sets out to tell.

Alas, the tale does not live up to its promise. In fact, it doesn't even get within hailing distance of its promise. From the very beginning, it's all too clear that the documentary doesn't have a clear idea of where it's going or what it's doing; not surprisingly, it ends up going nowhere and not doing much. The first few minutes are a hasty and jarring summary of all the topics that will be covered in the documentary's brief running time of forty-five minutes, ranging from Melville's book to Nantucket whaling society to sperm whales to survival at sea, and never settling on a particular theme. The narrator's persistent use of the present tense is jarring and unnatural-sounding as well; instead of drawing the viewer in, it actually serves to distance the viewer from the events on screen.

At first, it appears that we might be getting a documentary on the way of life of 19th-century whalers, which in itself would be interesting. We learn of the basic organization of the ship's hold, the horror and brutality involved in actually catching and killing a whale, and of the long voyages necessary to actually find the whales.

The program then shifts gears and takes a look at the lives of the sperm whales themselves. This is probably the highest point in Moby Dick: A True Story. The whales are presented in an objective yet sympathetic light: peaceful creatures, long-lived and slow to reproduce, they suffered greatly from the depredations of the whaling ships. While Melville would paint the "great white whale" as a malevolent creature, the documentary points out that whale who smashed the Essex was no man-eating monster; most likely, it mistook the ship for a competing male, with whom the whale would have fought to gain the attentions of the females. And in smashing the ship, that whale undoubtedly saved many of his fellow whales – mainly breeding females and calves – from ending their lives lighting lamps and greasing machinery.

At this point, the documentary shifts into "adventure" mode, with the focus becoming the attempts of the stranded Essex crew to survive. Though it's presented as being the highlight of the program, it's actually the least interesting part. There's no particular reason to feel sorry for the sailors, as they all voluntarily signed on to a dangerous enterprise, and one that involved murdering whales for profit, to boot. In any case, though the show seems to assume that the audience will care deeply about the fates of the individual sailors, there's never enough information presented about any of them to make them really come alive as people. The characters blur together, and their situation is never made particularly engaging.


Moby Dick: A True Story is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.66:1, with no anamorphic enhancement, although the case and disc incorrectly say that it is anamorphic. Oddly, however, a few shots have a slightly "squashed" look to them, as if they were shot in a wider aspect ratio and compressed to fit the 1.66:1 image rather than edited.

The image quality is highly variable. Some shots are fairly attractive, with good colors and no print flaws: these are mainly either the CGI shots of the ship from a distance or general views of the landscape (or seascape, as the case may be). A few early sections of the film appear to use very old footage (though it's unspecified when it comes from, I would estimate around 1910 or so); these sequences are brown, flickering, and badly scratched, as one might expect from the age of the source material.

The live-action sequences that reenact the events of the shipwreck, with actors portraying the various sailors, looks frankly terrible, with heavy grain and badly washed-out colors. I suspect that the image was "downgraded" deliberately to make it look older and more authentic; however, if this was the case, it badly misfired. Far from looking more authentic, it just looks lousy. On top of it all, there's a reasonable amount of noise in the image that probably wasn't intended to be there.


There's not much that can be said about the Dolby 2.0 track of Moby Dick: A True Story. It does its job and not much more. The narrator's voice is always clear, and the sound as a whole appears natural.


If I could give negative stars for extras, this DVD would get some. It's not that it's bare-bones (which it is); I don't have much of a problem with that. It's that quality control must have been out to lunch when the disc went through the approval process. To begin with, the information on the DVD itself is incorrect; the disc lists it as being 52 minutes long, but in fact the program only runs 45 minutes. Since there are no special features, there's nothing to account for the error in run time. More annoying, however, is the fact that there are not just one, but two misspelled words in the chapter titles. Ouch. And to top it all off, there's an annoying non-skippable sequence promoting the Discovery Channel before you can get to the menu.

Final thoughts

In the end, Moby Dick: A True Story is a strange muddle of a documentary. Hardly any connection is drawn in the program between the Essex's story and Melville's Moby Dick, because there really wasn't much of a connection. The Essex incident, in book form, seems to have given Melville the general idea of a dangerous whale that attacks a ship, but the main elements of the true story, notably the days adrift at sea, were not incorporated into the book. The filmed documentary fails to make these events interesting in their own right, making Moby Dick: A True Story a DVD that can safely be left to drift past without either renting or buying.
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