"For the benefit and enjoyment of the people." - President Theodore Roosevelt
Renowned filmmaker Ken Burns has been producing and directing films for nearly thirty years and is most recognized for his acclaimed Emmy-winning documentary series 'The Civil War' and 'The War.' Partnered with his frequent collaborator, writer/co-producer Dayton Duncan, Burns' most recent project shifts gears to focus on the U.S. National Park System.
Originally broadcast on PBS in late September 2009, 'The National Parks: America's Best Idea' is a monumental six-part miniseries chronicling the history of National Parks in America and the stories of the people from all walks of life who fought for the preservation of our homegrown wonderlands. The series tells the tales of instrumental key players like John Muir -- the "mountain prophet" whose dedication and love of the wilderness led to the establishment of the first park (Yellowstone) in 1872; John F. Lacey -- the driving force behind the Antiquities Act which would bestow presidential power to the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and others to protect certain areas by designating them as National Monuments; and Stephen Mather and Horace Albright -- the men responsible for the creation of the National Park Service.
The six episodes in the series each run approximately two hours in length and concentrate on a different section of the National Parks' lifespan:
1) "The Scripture of Nature" (1851-1890)
2) "The Last Refuge" (1890-1915)
3) "The Empire of Grandeur" (1915-1919)
4) "Going Home" (1920-1933)
5) "Great Nature" (1933-1945)
6) "The Morning of Creation" (1946-1980)
Peter Coyote is the primary narrator of all six episodes, and his voice is strong and commanding throughout the series. There are times where he does come off sounding a bit pompous and preachy, however I think that's really more to do with some of the reading material he was given. Breaking up the monotony of a singular voice are additional interjections by a variety of actors reading actual quotes from relevant historical figures. Some of these participants include Adam Arkin, Philip Bosco, Kevin Conway, Andy Garcia, Tom Hanks, John Lithgow, Josh Lucas, Carolyn McCormick, Yumi Mizui, Campbell Scott, George Takei, Eli Wallach, and Sam Waterston. On top of this, there are numerous talking head segments with a slew of writers, historians, park rangers, and more sharing factoids and personal memories from the parks.
Accompanying the narrative is a steady stream of interesting visuals as well, consisting of archival photos, stock video footage, and other imagery. Burns and his crew also visited fifty-three of the current fifty-eight U.S. National Parks to gather breathtaking modern day cinematography of the scenic vistas as well as the flora and fauna found in these protected landscapes. Viewers are instantly transported to the majestic cliffs of the Grand Canyon, the massive Sequoia forests around Yosemite Valley, to the hot springs and geysers at Yellowstone.
It's obvious that a vast amount of research and effort went into 'The National Parks: America's Best Idea.' The production took over six years to complete and there's a constant high-pressure flow of engrossing material so it never really has time to cause boredom. There are some slower patches for sure, but as soon as the program begins to drag its heels a little, it picks right up again by diving into another interesting bit of history or anecdote. Seriously, there's so much information jam-packed in here that it's quite exhausting at times.
The only real nitpick I have is that I noticed periods of repetition within the twelve hours of content. Some of it is dialogue rehashing a topic previously mentioned in an earlier episode, while other recycled bits are a few of the photos and even a fair amount of the footage Burns' crew filmed at the parks. Now I wouldn't say it was overly excessive, but it probably could have been trimmed down for a more streamlined five episodes or so and would have been just as effective.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
PBS presents the entire series of 'The National Parks: America's Best Idea' on six BD-50 Blu-ray discs housed inside a thicker butterfly keepcase. The blue plastic case in turn slides into a sturdy cardboard slipcover. Each disc boots up at a menu screen, and when the episodes are played there are a series of promos that can be easily skipped with the remote. The U.S. version of this release is also reported to be region-locked and therefore will only play in Region A compatible PlayStation 3 and standalone players.
Before I popped the first disc of 'The National Parks: America's Best Idea' in my Blu-ray player, I have to admit I was expecting an exceptional video transfer. After all, this is a documentary lined with gorgeous cinematography captured at a fair number of the parks and monuments scattered around the country. Maybe my expectations were too high, as I found the 1080i/AVC MPEG-4 (1.78:1 aspect ratio) encode to be rather mediocre and a bit of a disappointment.
A transfer like this is difficult to tack an accurate number onto since the presentation is comprised of still photos, artwork, stock footage, home video footage, interview segments, and of course professionally filmed sequences with the sole purpose of demonstrating the exquisite beauty of these wonderlands. The still footage of photographs, artwork, and park propaganda are the sharpest, revealing every little speck, crease, and other blemishes from the original source in terrific detail. The older stock and home video inclusions are in pretty rough shape and riddled with flecks, scratches, and other debris likely from poor original source material. The interviews have a slightly washed-out color scheme and there's very little depth. Black levels are nicely deep at times, and appear weaker in other places. Skin tones are natural looking and have acceptable detail. Periodic artifacts show up as well, but there doesn't seem to be any DNR, edge enhancement, or other issues in these cases.
The most disappointing aspect for me, though, is the footage Burns and his crew captured at the parks themselves. Perhaps it's the 16mm film that's to blame, but these scenes really failed to impress. The images are often crawling with grain, and most of the footage has sort of a faint rust-colored film over them, which is really noticeable when looking at the bright blue skies. Colors of forests, flowers, and golden canyons are frequently vivid and striking, although most of the time the hues and contrast seems off. Depth is also weak here due to the heavy grain field. Sadly, the Blu-ray picture just doesn't come anywhere close to creating a virtual window to nature as I had hoped from this type of production.
All six episodes of 'The National Parks: America's Best Idea' on Blu-ray are equipped with a lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack, and to be honest, this is actually one of the better sounding documentaries to hit the format.
As the series is virtually a historical textbook on the National Parks, it isn't surprising that dialogue is the central focus of the mix. Peter Coyote's narration comes through crisp and clean, as do the variety of additional voices provided by the other commentators. The spoken parts are primarily locked to the center channel, although about halfway into the third episode there seems to be a glitch where dialogue spans the front three speakers. Fortunately, this only lasts approximately ten minutes, so it doesn't have a detrimental effect on the overall presentation.
Accenting the vocals is a broad arrangement of music and it spreads nicely across the soundstage. Powerful rumblings from the subwoofer come out of nowhere to dramatically bolster the segments on Hawaiian volcanic eruptions and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Many discreet sound effects like birds chirping, wolves howling, or the steam whistle of a train engine are noticeable from the rear channels, and the whirling motors of a projector can even be heard from behind the viewer during early park film footage. Altogether, PBS has done an impressive job on the audio with this release that went well beyond my expectations for a documentary series.
The discs also include an alternate Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 track as well as optional English and Spanish subtitles.
Documentaries typically have few bonus supplements if any at all, so it's nice to see that PBS included a solid chunk of content for this release. All six discs have something extra found on them, and everything is presented in HD.
'The National Parks: America's Best Idea' is probably the most thorough examination of the National Parks in the United States and the heroes who dedicated their lives to preserving them for future generations. This Blu-ray set is a decent package, delivering above average audio and an assortment of supplements for a documentary series, although the video presentation struggles to showcase the scenery in its full glory. Even so, 'The National Parks: America's Best Idea' still is a fascinating program, and comes recommended to anyone who has a keen interest in the parks or American history in general.