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Life Among Whales, A

Other // Unrated // July 21, 2009
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Nick Hartel | posted October 8, 2009 | E-mail the Author
THE PROGRAM

"Save the Whales" is a well known, if not clich├ęd phrase. While not a fan of whaling whatsoever, I honestly thought I knew just how bad whaling was. However, "A Life Among Whales" exposed my ignorance on the subject in a hurry.

This 55 minute documentary serves as a fantastic primer to the world of whales as it focuses on the majestic creatures themselves, the horrors of the whaling industry that hunt them, and the work of Dr. Roger Payne, who through his own admission, like myself, didn't know much about whales even as a post-doc researcher, has come to dedicate his life to studying them and fighting to keep them safe from intentional harm.

The documentary hits with train-like impact from the get-go, quickly bombarding us with footage of commercial whaling. Dr. Payne is (nearly) our sole narrator, explaining the horrors of this industry. The footage departs from your standard looks of whales stacked for harvest, and shows us their violent, thrashing deaths at both the brutality of exploding harpoons as well as electrocution. It's not pleasant, but still far less gratuitous and graphic than it could have been. If you're like me and only casually understand the harm of whaling, these scenes will serve as a huge wake up call.

It is not all doom and gloom though, further could be from the truth. Dr. Payne tells us about how he came to study these animals, specifically the songs of the Humpback Whale, from his beginnings as a curious child, to his life-changing decision as a post-doctoral researcher, who questioned whether his research was really doing anything good for the world. Payne is a humble man, who speaks in clear, easy to understand terms, and his love for this planet and its creatures is very apparent. The program's choice to make his story a part of the big picture, does help convey his ultimate message of one person making a difference, all the much clearer.

The meat of the brief program though focuses on whales, and in a bold move, the director chooses to segue topics by using young children to explain scientific facts about whales, both verbally and visually. Enough information is relayed to give viewers a general understanding of how fascinating whales are, as well as the difference between the different species. The most focused on aspect of whales though, is the songs of Humpback Whales, as Dr. Payne is one of two-men who discovered over four decades ago, the importance of the sounds these creatures produce.

The compact nature of the program is a double-edge sword though. The end result is more a video primer to the subject of whales and conservation and thusly, its lasting appeal is limited. The editing style of the program also suffers from some rapid cuts, most apparent when Payne is on camera. Fortunately, the majority of the program is documentary footage and is edited in a more conventional sense.




THE DVD

The Video

The 1.78:1 non-anamorphic widescreen transfer, appears to be a low-budget affair. The documentary footage lacks the pop that more polished productions sport. Overall, detail levels are softer than desired, while color levels appear to be adequate. An anamorphic transfer would have been greatly appreciated and its absence is baffling, considering the interview segment in the bonus features is anamorphic.

The Audio

The English Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track serves its intended purpose here, with a well-balanced, clear mix that is obviously dialogue heavy.

The Extras

Despite the more than expected quantity of extras on this disc, the vast majority come off as being commercial in nature. A short interview with Dr. Payne and director Bill Haney is the most interesting of all the extras, with Haney dominating the affair, which is more than ok, since the questions largely focus on the creation of the program.

Next up there is a short segment on Payne's Ocean Alliance, which while informative, feels like something that might be shown at an aquarium or museum. The same can be said for PSA-esque "Lethal Sounds" segment, narrated by Pierce Brosnan, and the two IFAW 2008 Whale Campaign videos. Given the ultimate message of the documentary, these commercials are understandable, but still slightly mismarketed as true "extras."

A trailer for the program itself rounds out the remainder of the bonus features.

Final Thoughts

There is no debating the quality of "A Life Among Whales." It very efficiently conveys the importance of helping to conserve these creatures, as well as giving credit to another remarkable man of science, Dr. Roger Payne. It's an excellent starting point for anyone interested in the subjects, but ultimately, will only be of interest for the libraries of educators and diehard whale aficionados, especially give the mediocre technical presentation. Rent It.

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