Antarctica Dreaming (HD DVD)
DVD International // Unrated // $29.95
Review by Adam Tyner | posted April 28, 2007
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Shot over the course of five trips to the Antarctic and South Atlantic and culled from 160 tapes of high-definition footage, the feature-length documentary Antarctica Dreaming offers a detailed look at both the region and the creatures able to eke out a life in such an inhospitable climate. Accompanied by stunning photography, the detailed but concise narration explores the origins of the fifth largest continent and how its unspoiled landscape and miles-long glaciers were shaped over the course of millions of years, the influence the region has on the weather patterns of the world at large, and the frozen majesty of its colossal icebergs. Of course, no look at the Antarctic would be complete without a peek at everyone's favorite waddling, flightless bird, and much of Antarctica Dreaming is spent with the four very different types of penguins scattered throughout the region as well as albatrosses, skua gulls, and several groups of seals.

I appreciated Antarctica Dreaming's approach to segmenting this material. An unimaginative and quickly tiresome documentary would have delved into all four types of penguin that call the Antarctic home in rapid succession, but instead, Antarctica Dreaming discusses one group and then moves onto a different topic, gingerly distributing the penguin footage throughout its 82 minute runtime. Likewise for the several different species of seals as well as the region's physical and meteorological significance. It's a mindset that prevents any one topic from becoming stale, and the structure's clean enough that transitions never feel awkward or jarring.

Antarctica Dreaming strikes a nice balance that should make it appealing to the entire family. Ben Feldstein's narration is warm and lively enough, if a bit overenunciated, and the delivery is neither dry and overly technical nor does it pander to a younger crowd. There isn't any graphic imagery that would shock children delighted by the sight of penguins; the mortality rate of penguin chicks is stated in voiceover but goes unshown, and the squabbles between animals aren't bloody or excessively violent. The closest it really comes are a somewhat obscured shot of a skua gull dragging a mostly submerged penguin to shore and another of scavengers pecking at a somewhat indistinct carcass, both of which are fairly tame. I'm not arguing against the sometimes brutal realities of the wild being reflected in nature documentaries, but parents concerned about subjecting particularly young children to that sort of thing should be pleased with Antarctica Dreaming. It should be of particular interest to families who've recently given Happy Feet a spin; literally every single one of the animals featured in that animated film is discussed in detail in Antarctica Dreaming.

Video: The clips from Antarctica Dreaming were the most impressive on HDScape's sampler, and this 1.78:1 image -- sourced from high-definition video and encoded using AVC -- continues to impress. The compositions are often striking, and he has a particular talent for photographing individual creatures against endlessly expansive backdrops, placing into the frame elements that are equal parts intimate and gargantuan. His tightest close-ups are dazzlingly detailed; one early shot of a penguin that really caught my eye saw the tiniest glints of light being reflected from its plumage, and it seemed as if each and every one of the feathers in its fine down exterior were clear and distinct. Faint drizzles of falling snow and the tiny pebbles under the penguins' feet are rendered with similarly remarkable clarity. The stark Antarctic setting doesn't offer the widest assortment of colors, but there are some hues that really pop off the screen, particularly the almost otherworldly bright blue of some glaciers and pools of water. There are a few minor concerns with artifacting, with some light blockiness visible in a couple of scattered shots of the sky and overhead looks at the sea, as well as some instability in a few horizontal pans. Those are easily ignored in what is otherwise a very nice looking disc.

HDScape has been issuing all of their titles as combo discs, meaning that the flipside of Antarctica Dreaming will play this same footage in standard definition and anamorphic widescreen on any traditional DVD player.

Audio: Antarctica Dreaming offers two Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 tracks, the first of which includes newly-recorded narration by Ben Feldstein. (Apparently an earlier standard definition version released overseas had a different narrator.) Feldstein's narration has a rather sibilant quality to it but is reproduced reasonably well. The audio takes advantage of the multichannel setup, offering some nice directionality across the front channels as penguins bob from one end of the screen to the other, and the surrounds establish a strong sense of ambiance. Some of the music cues and more dramatic effects such as a collapsing glacier coax a substantial snarl from the subwoofer as well. This is a documentary, so the audio isn't -- nor should it be -- as aggressive as a bombastic Hollywood blockbuster, but it's certainly a notch or two above what I went in expecting.

A second track keeps the music and natural sounds intact while stripping out the narration. This is a noticeable step up from the usual home theater backdrop HD DVDs since the ambiance and score are so closely tied to the imagery on-screen.

Extras: Antarctica Dreaming features six additional mini-documentaries that run over half an hour in total. The first of them, "Antarctica" (4 min.), focuses largely on the formation and physical aspects of the continent. The disc then turns its sights to the South Atlantic for "Falklands" (5:29) and "South Georgia" (6:17), touching briefly on the modern history of each territory and devoting the bulk of the remainder to the native birdlife.

The other three mini-documentaries are primarily about man's impact on the region. "Whaling" (8:11) features some intriguing glimpses of penguins and seals cavorting in front of the rusting remnants of the bygone era of whaling, along with shots of skeletal remains that washed ashore and vintage photographs of whalers at work. "Tourism" (5:55) explores the Antarctic's status as a destination for some twenty thousand tourists a year and the impact this has had on the region's wildlife. Finally, "Climate Change" (4:19) is a brief commentary about gradually rising temperatures and the direction in which our world could turn in the years to come.

One or two brief DV shots in "Whaling" aside, all six mini-documentaries are provided in high definition. The footage is comparable in quality to the feature, although some clips -- "South Georgia" in particular -- exhibit more in the way of compression artifacts.

The disc also includes several brief sets of production notes, some of which don't appear to have been proofread that carefully judging by such typos as "Plilip Glass" being an influence on composer Jacob Round. Another random gripe is that the main menu on this HD DVD has some elements that are heavily aliased and rather low resolution in appearance, but obviously none of that should deter anyone who's interested from picking up this disc.

Conclusion: Antarctica Dreaming makes for a very nice companion piece to the likes of March of the Penguins and Happy Feet as well as standing out as an informative, entertaining, and frequently eye-catching documentary in its own right. Recommended.

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