The BBC is to nature documentaries what Pixar is to animated feature films. Ever since 'Planet Earth' they've fine-tuned the process into an attention-grabbing science. Remember the years of PBS nature documentaries that seemed to lack any sort of pizzazz or panache? Well those days are gone. They've since been replaced by beautiful time-lapse photography, wonderfully detailed slow motion shots of wildlife in action, and the reassuring voice of the nature documentary narrator extraordinaire himself, David Attenborough.
Ever since the success of 'Planet Earth' the BBC has essentially brought nature documentaries into the mainstream consciousness. People now seek out every documentary produced by them in order to learn more about the world around them. Their secret has been the fusion of three main subjects: amazingly visceral "like you're there" visual imagery; truly unique and most of the times unseen animal behavior; and stories of animals constructed in such a way that tells the harrowing tale of living in the wild. Bringing all these facets together, the BBC has seen its popularity rise exponentially when it comes to nature documentaries.
BBC returns to the nature documentary front with 'Frozen Planet.' Initially airing on the Discovery Channel, 'Frozen Planet' tells the varied stories of wildlife in the furthest reaches of our world's poles. The North Pole is home to polar bears that are at risk of losing their hunting grounds if ice continues to melt at the rapid rate it's melting at the moment. The South Pole is one of the harshest places on earth, but life still survives as penguins brave the bitter cold to raise their young.
Over its seven episodes 'Frozen Planet' covers a variety of stories from the barren, frozen wastelands of our planet. You may be surprised at the amount of life that lives in these seemingly inhospitable habitats.
"The Ends of the Earth"
This episode acts as an introduction of sorts. It feels sort of like a mad-dash overview of both poles. We learn quickly about sea ice and its unpredictable nature. We see huge glaciers in Greenland and how fast they move. Attenborough guides us from pole to pole with his calming voice as he introduces us to a mother polar bear and her cubs. The same mother and cubs we'll end up checking up on throughout the series. We also get to see a harrowing chase as a pack of arctic wolves hunt down and kill a bison. The photography here is incredible. Something happens that is simply astounding, which they were lucky to capture on film. I dare not divulge it, it's better if it comes as a surprise.
Over the next four episodes 'Frozen Planet' documents how each season affects the wildlife in the earth's frozen places. Here we learn about how Adelie penguins court mates by building the best pebble nests a penguin can build. But, just like the human world, the penguin world has one or two bad eggs. A thieving penguin steals pebbles from his neighbor, making the other guy do twice the work. Up north we're focused back on the mama bear and her cubs. Three cubs is rare, and we're told in no uncertain terms that at least one of them will die before too long. At least we're spared its demise. I thought the highlight of this episode was when the BBC crew focus their attention on a seemingly insignificant arctic caterpillar named the Wooly Bear caterpillar. Each winter the Wooly Bear snuggles under a rock and freezes with the oncoming ice of winter. Its heart stops, its blood freezes, and it enters stasis. In the spring when the ice thaws the caterpillar bursts to life. After 14 years of leaf eating, the caterpillar is finally ready to make its cocoon transformation. After all the shots of killer whales and polar bears eating defenseless animals watching the Wooly Bear complete its improbable journey is uniquely satisfying.
It's a time of great abundance for sea dwellers like whales, but for polar bears, the summer months bring a time of scaled back hunting. Polar bears turn scavengers in the summer eating berries. Wolves have an extremely difficult time trying to bring down a young musk ox. Wolves and polar bears seem to be the animals that are in the most desperate of circumstances. At least with the way Attenborough refers to them. It's hard to know if it's true, but the way his narration is written the polar bears and wolves are always on the brink of starvation no matter what. The return of Emperor penguins is the featured moment in this episode as it sets up a very 'March of the Penguins' type story as we follow the mating of the penguins and eventually down the road the hatching of their eggs.
Some of the most spectacular time-lapse footage resides here. The camera pans over the tundra and takes in the color changes as the leaves of the tundra's plant life ready for winter. Frost comes. The high-powered cameras zoom in and we see the intricate ice crystals form on the leaves and twigs. It's an awe-inspiring experience. Animals from pole to pole ready for the oncoming winter. Emperor penguins are one of the only animal species that stay in Antarctica all winter long. They ready themselves for the very cold months ahead. The females lay their eggs, pass them over to the males, and they leave to gather food for their chicks.
Only the most adapted animals stay at the poles during the dead of winter. Polar bears are in their natural habitat, but hunting in the extreme conditions is terrifyingly difficult. The most amazing aspect of this episode is the seals that stay year-round in Antarctica. Underneath the ice the water is the same temperature it has always been. So all the seals have to do is continually scrape away the building ice that accumulates over their breathing holes. They're able to escape the terrible winds up top, just by staying below. More amazing time-lapse photography as well. Salty ice pillars sometimes work their way down to the ocean floor freezing anything they touch. Truly a magnificent site to see it played out.
"The Last Frontier"
'Human Planet' was the BBC's way of showing us that even humans live and adapt to extreme conditions. It was a great documentary. The human element is discussed in this episode. From Inuit men in the furthest reaches of Russia who risk their lives to pluck bird eggs from sheer cliffs to scientists in Antarctica who are determined to study the effect the ice caps have on the planet's climate, this episode is all about the humans who have adapted to live in such harsh conditions.
"On Thin Ice"
This episode is the clarion call of the series. Here the BBC, and Attenborough himself, discuss the real threat of shirking glaciers and the hurried melting of polar ice. They never come out and say the earth's warming is man-made, but they discuss quite extensively the real scientific evidence that ice is melting much faster today than it was just 20 or 30 years ago. Dangers are assessed and scenarios are discussed if the ice continues to melt as rapidly as it has been. Questions about human survival are asked, along with wondering how certain animals like polar bears will adapt. Global warming will forever be a hot-button issue, but there seems to be an overwhelming amount of data put forth in easy-to-understand layman's terms here to support what scientists are seeing.
I loved just about every minute of 'Frozen Planet.' Some scenes and footage seems repetitive though, which caught me off guard. There were times where I was wondering if I was watching the same exact episode that I had just watched.
I must say though that as much as I like Alec Baldwin (he narrated the show when it aired in the US on Discovery), David Attenborough's voice on the narration is so much better. It's the only way to watch the show.
'Frozen Planet' follows in the long and storied tradition of BBC nature documentaries that capture the imagination. Creating a renewed interest in the world around us. Some may call it "nature porn," but the BBC's documentaries are insanely enjoyable. This one is no different.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This BBC Earth release comes in a standard size keepcase that houses three 50GB Blu-ray Discs. This is a Region A release. It also comes with a cardboard slipcover that has a stuck-on holographic image on the front that has slightly different artwork than the actual case.
It's almost to the point where there's no need to explain the video presentations on these documentaries because you and I both expect and usually get (with the exception of 'Madagascar') a demo-worthy presentation. This 1080i AVC-encoded transfer is no different. The BBC have outdone themselves again with a beautiful transfer that captures the frozen areas of the earth in a majestic glory.
I know what you're thinking, focusing on all things frozen is going to lead to a lot of white. While you may be somewhat correct, there is much more color in this series than you'd expect. The first color that jumps out is the piercing blue of glacial rivers as they cut waterslide-like rivers into the tops of glaciers. As the cameras pan over the rushing blue water it ends up being some of the most spectacular visuals in all of the series. Above I discussed the colors in the "Autumn" episode. Reds, oranges, and yellows are all presented in striking fashion as the tundra goes through its seasonal change. Wolves' muzzles go from stark white to bloody pink as they tear into the downed carcass of a recently killed bison. Even though we're dealing with a lot of snow, there's still a ton of color to go around and it's all rendered perfectly.
Detail is superb too. Ultra-closeups reveal the fine feathers of a penguin's head and the fluffy newborn fur of a baby polar bear. Individual hairs and feathers are completely visible. Each barnacle can be seen. Scars and battle wounds are evident on large elephant seals. The downy fluff of baby penguins is almost too cute to handle. Slow motion shots of penguins flying out of the water offer unparalleled detail. Water droplets flying off their bodies are individually distinct as they slowly fly through the air.
Even though it's presented in 1080i, I dare you to find a difference between any other 1080p presentations out there. The beauty and majesty of earth's frozen regions are caught with immaculate clarity here. There may be a few soft shots here and there (usually due to having to use a different camera at that time), but nothing to really complain about. Blacks are healthy and resolved. There aren't any technical faux pas to announce here. Most all of the series is demo-worthy material.
Gone are the annoying sound effects that plagued 'Life.' Although, 'Frozen Planet' does contain some painfully obvious musical choices which are used to enhance the mood whether it be intense, playful, or endearing. Still the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is spectacular in its own right.
The entire soundfield fills with ambient sound. As the camera pans over enormous glaciers ice crack and creak before huge chunks break off with thundering splashes into the ocean below. Killer whale clicks and calls echo through the rear speakers giving you that underwater feel. The icy Antarctic winds envelope you making you feel like you need a coat even though you're sitting in your comfortable climate-controlled house.
The narration is always clear and never lost in the wildlife mayhem happening on screen. Helicopters zoom from one side of the frame to the other as panning effects work smoothly. This is an impressive audio track and does just as much (or more) as the video presentation in making you feel what it would be like to spend some time in these harsh environments. That howling wind really is quite intimidating.
I hate the cold and loathe snow, so I didn't think that 'Frozen Planet' would end up being all that interesting to me. While watching it made me feel like I should've been drinking an oversized cup of hot chocolate with every episode, I ended up loving every minute of the series. BBC and David Attenborough have a way of drawing you into subjects that you never thought you'd be interested in. I can already see myself going around exclaiming to my friends, "Did you know an albatross can have the same partner for 50 years or more!" like I'm suddenly a wildlife expert. That's what these BBC documentaries do though. They take complex life cycles and animals and explain their lives in ways we unscientific people can understand. Plus, the photography is always beautiful and the shots that they manage to get always astound. 'Frozen Planet' is highly recommended.