'North America' is another in a long line of nature films ushering a new era made distinct by some truly extraordinary high-definition cinematography that manages to capture wildlife in their native habitat, breathtaking landscapes and all the wild weather phenomena coursing over the titular continent. The 7-episode series is done in the same vein as the incredibly popular 'Planet Earth' series, which was later followed up by the modestly titled 'Life,' and for the most part manages to feel like a legitimate continuation of the series, even though this is strictly a Discovery Channel production, as opposed to the aforementioned titles which were born of the BBC.
Like those that came before it, the information of 'North America' is made to be easily absorbed and as entertaining as possible – i.e., the content is calibrated for children and adults alike – and therefore, from the get go, it is clear that the series just as easily could have been titled 'Baby Animals Are Cute,' or simply ''Merica,' for all the time it's willing to spend in the places that make up North America not called the United States. Sure, the series pokes its head into Canada a few times and dips below California or Texas on occasion to explore Mexico and the region before South America, but for the most part, the series is clearly geared toward those who think the countries bracketing the U.S. may as well be different planets. That's not to say the series stirs up any animosity or drapes every frame in star spangled glory; it's just that about one episode in, it becomes very clear this is a production with its sights set plainly on audiences in (or solely interested in) the lands of the United States.
And making things as palatable as possible for those audiences are the dulcet tones of Tom Selleck's mustache-filtered voice, which delivers information in a warm, authoritative tone that's fitting of the production and never strays too far on one end of the spectrum, regardless if he's describing the drowning of a gray whale calf by a pod of orcas or a newborn mountain goat triumphantly crossing a swollen and fast flowing river (baby animals, man, they enhance every situation!). To his credit, Selleck does a commendable job with some incredibly earnest and saccharine dialogue that is so insanely corny at times it's nearly insufferable. (On that note: Apparently, Rutger Hauer supplied the voiceover for the series in Scandinavian markets, which would be something worth listening.)
The often too syrupy narration is there to supply some context to every scenario that's on display, and to the credit of the series' writers, they manage to have quite a story to tell for nearly every situation possible. Sure, sometimes the filmmakers are just dropping in on a mother grizzly and her cubs, or sneaking a peek at a red-capped manakin as he puts on a show in the hopes that his DNA will continue on after his dancing days are long behind him, and for the most part, these scenarios manage to be entertaining info drops intended to fill the space between the more lengthy and emotionally stirring narratives to come. And honestly, it's these straightforward segments that deliver the most compelling segments; they manage to come off as highly entertaining because of their ability to accentuate the sense of wonder that comes from seeing something unfamiliar and attention-grabbing, perhaps for the first time.
The rest of the time, 'North America' – like many other nature documentaries before – is interested in building incredibly elaborate narratives around the various wildlife it is depicting, sometimes going so far as to practically anthropomorphize the animals and cast them as characters in a life-or-death drama set in the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains or even in the waters of the Pacific. And really there's nothing wrong with that approach; the drama this technique manages to wring from these intricately plotted life struggles is palpable, even if chances are, the finer details of the story are largely the work of a team of writers not present during filming. (Perhaps the rumors of fabrication surrounding such nature documentaries as 'Wild Kingdom' and, most famously, 'White Wilderness' have jaded me to such a degree that these scenarios feel unnecessarily intricate when a more uncomplicated approach might yield similar results.)
Regardless of how the myriad details are presented, 'North America' is still first and foremost a visual presentation – one that is filmed so beautifully it is nearly a shame to adorn it with a voice-over. In fact, one of the special features on the disc allows you to view an entire episode with only the music and original audio recording, creating an almost entirely new viewing experience that should have been an option on all seven episodes, instead of just one. But the desire to just watch and listen is a testament to how well this series was crafted, and how capable the filmmakers are in terms of not merely acquiring footage of wild, elusive and sometimes dangerous animals, but also in terms of doing so in an artful, visually stimulating way.
'North America' blurs the lines between educational and entertaining in a unique way that makes you appreciate the scope of the world that exists beyond your front door and presents the world in spectacular fashion.
'North America' is a two 50GB disc set containing all seven episodes of the series, along with the special feature. The two-disc set also apparently features extended episodes, which include new footage from the original broadcast premiere. It doesn't go into detail just what these extended episodes consist of, but you can be sure it has to do with something small and cuddly looking being adorable or overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds by not becoming part of the food chain.
As expected, the 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer on 'North America' supplies the series with the kind of image that essentially sells high-definition television sets. Every frame of every episode is teeming with detail, rich in color and boasts outstanding contrast to provide an image with superb depth and clarity.
The cinematography is certainly on par with anything that's come before and was heralded as game changing in its ability to present the smallest detail in the greatest amount of precision possible. Those expecting to count the hairs on a grizzly's head, or be dazzled by a slow-motion battle between bald eagles that looks more like a scene from 'The Matrix' than something made for The Discovery Channel will find their expectations met to the utmost. It's clear that capturing as much fine detail as possible was a priority not only in the filming of the series, but also in presenting the footage that was captured. But all the detail in the world isn't going to matter much if the color is off and things look a bit wonky. Thankfully, the series' attention to detail also includes precise color, which manages to look incredibly vivid and rich without being oversaturated, as is sometimes the case when greens and reds and yellows are so readily abundant in nearly every frame.
There are times when the limitations of even today's technology are apparent, however, as the necessary uses of extreme telephoto lenses results in an image that can sometimes be very grainy and look incredibly dissimilar from the rest of the presentation. It's noticeable, but considering the format and genre of 'North America' it's easy to understand. This is an incredibly precise-looking image that is calibrated to shine on high-definition sets and mostly comes up a winner in that regard.
While most Blu-ray aficionados are used to the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 treatment, 'North America' has opted for a simpler Dolby Digital 5.1 option that while not being as impressive as its counterpart, still manages to provide a nice listening experience that gets the job done.
For the most part, the mix seems intended to highlight the narration and the musical soundtrack that's full of rock 'n' roll staples from the last half-century and manages to be rather ridiculous in certain parts. That means that while Tom Selleck and 'Black Betty' sound clear, precise and, in the case of the Ram Jam's hit, powerful and loaded with LFE, the actual sounds of nature and the wildlife being talked about tend to fade into the background somewhat. For the most part that means the rear channels are tasked with handling the ambient sounds of the environment. While it succeeds in doing so to a certain extent, it stops short of being a wholly immersive experience, as even in the quietest of moments, theirs is the feeling that a layer of sound is missing, or that the atmosphere needs to be turned up a notch.
This is by no means a bad sounding mix; in fact, it's actually pretty great. The only problem is it's too focused on presenting the voiceover and soundtrack than it is in creating a true sense of place in the world being documented.
'North America' is a gorgeous bit of documentary filmmaking that succeeds in highlighting a vast and amazing landscape that may be taken for granted by some. Although it accomplishes the task of presenting new and familiar things in a magnificent new light, it often does so by occasionally becoming gratingly inspirational. There is a great deal of information here, and it is presented in an incredibly entertaining package that will undoubtedly appeal to wildlife aficionados and novices alike. Even though the special features could have been more inclusive, the commentaries are great to listen to and it's all presented with a beautiful looking image that is the primary reason anyone would want to watch.