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No...please, keep reading! This is not another review of that retched CG animated atrocity from a few years back (2005, actually) starring Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, and various interchangeable members of the stunt casting brigade. You will not see wise cracking lions, insecure giraffes, or sexually hopped up hippos here. Instead, this is another in-depth documentary on the country and its indigenous wildlife from the BBC...wait, PLEASE! KEEP READING! That was not meant to scare you off either. True, this real world travelogue exposes can often be as cold and calculated as a Manchester tea of cold PG Tips and beans on toast, but in actually this is an often interesting overview of this amazing island nation, a place where evolution was allowed to continue, unchecked, for millions of years. While a bit dry in the delivery and unexceptional technically - especially for a Blu-ray - the results still achieve the end goal of entertaining while enlightening, as much about the science and specifics of the region as it is about the wonders that remain a seminal part of our vast planet Earth.
Divided into three episodes and spanning a dense 174 minutes, Madagascar represents an overview of all regions of the isolated island nation. Here is a synopsis of what each section covers:
Part 1: Island of Wonders - the focus is on Madagascar's location, its unique habitat, its geographical and geological history, as well as the various famed forms of wildlife in evidence. This includes the lemur, fossas, chameleons, and weevils.
Part 2: Lost Worlds - we now move to the tropical rain forests to focus on flesh eating planets, carnivorous bugs, colorful frogs, and other manner of heretofore unseen creatures. We also learn of the fragile balance between these endangered ecosystems and the rest of the world.
Part 3: Land of Heat and Dust - heading to the more arid regions of the country, we come across poisonous trees, parrots, more lemurs, and the harsh realities of encroaching civilization, slash and burn deforestation, and the most modern of evils - man.
If Disney's live action travelogues made them commercial and shows like Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom made them commonplace, the BBC and cable entities like Discovery and Animal Planet have turned the wildlife documentary into a work of art. Using dozens of photographers and camera people, high tech equipment, and a resolve undeterred by profit margins or motivations, these stunning examples of unknown Earth remain inherently intriguing. Like similarly styled overviews on placed like the Galapagos Islands, Madagascar means to make a couple of cogent points. First and foremost is the nation's unusual place in the pantheon of evolution. Because of its insular nature as both a location and a gene pool, Madagascar has produced dozens of species unlike any seen anywhere else on Earth. Scientists and scholars come from all over the world to bask in its brilliant collection of mutations and indigenous originals. On the other hand, the country is also suffering from a kind of identity crisis. It wants to retain its natural beauty and sanctuary, but it also wants to exploit same for tourism and added financial gain. As a result, civilization continues to invade, destroying areas dedicated to the very thing the developers hope will draw investment interest.
Until the third part, when the argument for and against progress comes to the fore, the main portion of Madagascar is taken up with the majestic nature footage we've come to expect from something like this. The lemurs clearly steal the show, using their simian like skills to wow us with their tree climbing and hanging aplomb. Similarly, the various amphibians and reptiles offer a striking contrast in color and collective threat. It's stunning to consider that some of these animals could actually harm a human, let alone kill it. It's the same with some of the otherwise gorgeous plant life that inhabits the country. As the cameras focus in and capture images that appear impossible to achieve, we marvel at such an up close opportunity. For many of us, the nearest we will ever come to a wild parrot or a cat-like fossa is in a zoo - or in a documentary like this. Luckily, the technological skill of the people behind the camera lens increases our awareness, and our appreciation.
Indeed, the best thing about something like Madagascar is that it functions as several things at once: a cautionary tale about overdevelopment; a window on a world few will ever see or experience in real life; a catalog of the creatures that make this particular place so special; a lasting testament to the power and beauty in nature; a walk through the wonders of one of the planet's most pristine and important places; a great way to spend a few hours. Sure, the BBC can be a bit self righteous in how it approaches a subject and Attenborough often sounds like one of those knowledgeable British professors who don't seem to understand that their in-class demeanor is borderline boring. And yet it's the visual feast laid before us that demands indulgence. It's a kind of grand scale gluttony that allows us to feel full without actually having to leave our living room. Madagascar may have had its reputation sullied by a series of shoddy CG animated atrocities, but documentaries like this will go a long way toward righting such a wrong. Few places in the world are like this amazing island nation. Hopefully, it stays that way - figuratively and literally.
Oddly enough, this is not a reference quality release. Somehow, you expect the BBC and the makers of this Blu-ray to push for the best image and transfer possible. The 1080i/VC-1 encode offered, however, suffers from a few irritating issues. Details appear indistinct at times, elements you expect to stand out (whiskers, scales, fur) lacking any real textural or tactile quality. Similarly, things can be a bit muddy at times, as if the lens being used to capture a specific image was foggy or slightly out of focus (or, more likely, digitally zoomed). Things that don't suffer include the colors (they practically leap off the screen) and the overall cinematic feel to the feature. Granted, it was originally made for TV, but the UK really does understand the home theater market and dynamic.
Granted, it has more narration than anything else, but you expect a bit of sonic scope from a presentation hoping to capture the natural wonder of a world like Madagascar. Sadly, the choice of mix - 448kbps Dolby Digital stereo - does nobody any favors. Attenborough is certainly loud and clear, but the ambient elements and hit or miss soundtrack have no spatial or directional presence. The overall effect is flat and sometimes lifeless.
There are approximately two hours worth of added content offered on this two disc Blu-ray release. Of the three featurettes, the hour long Attenborough and the Giant Egg is a nice follow-up to the main film itself. Elsewhere, we get a standard definition look at the lemurs specifically, as well as a collection of behind the scenes shorts. All in all, the bonus features are fine, if not overwhelming in what they add.
Back in the day, no Sunday night was completely without a journey into Disney's wonderful world (including possible side tours along the "living desert" or the "vanishing prairie") followed by a visit with Marlin Perkins and his pal Jim Fowler as they traveled an insurance company sponsored "wild kingdom." Today, a twist to a specific cable or satellite channel can lead you to a dozen natural delights daily. Well worth the visit, this trip to Madagascar earns a Highly Recommended rating. True, the tech specs are not pristine and the overall attitude can be a bit academic at times, but for the most part, this is a pleasant trek into an amazing - and endangered - region. Just as long as it has nothing to do with computer animated critters, the experience will be entertaining and exciting enough.
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