Who doesn’t love a Ken Burns documentary? The man who changed the world of non-fiction filmmaking forever with his incredible Civil War, Baseball and Jazz series’ for PBS (and the namesake of iPhotos finest still-image effect) is back with The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, a six part, twelve hour miniseries now available on Blu-ray!
I’m almost embarrassed to say that I’ve never been to any of the parks that are the subject of this documentary series. I shouldn’t really be too hard on myself. I am Canadian after all. These are not technically my National Parks (Read about Parks Canada at their official website.) And yet, I found The National Parks: America’s Best Idea an engrossing viewing experience. It’s not at all what I was expecting. I had a feeling that I was going to see something akin to the Planet Earth series. You know, a lot of nature. A lot of discussion about plants and animals, geology and history. Instead, Ken Burns serves up compelling stories of the men and women responsible for making the parks the protected landmarks we know today. If you’re not in the right mood for these or don’t have the time, you might find yourself a little frustrated by the pacing but know that you’re watching one of the most well researched, well assembled documentary series of the decade. This is amazing stuff. It just might not be for everybody.
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea comes to Blu in a beautiful 6-disc package, each disc containing one of the 2-hour long episodes and a bonus feature. I’d love to say that you’re going to get reference-quality material here but, sadly, you’re not going to be using these discs to show off your home theatre set-up. Video is presented in 1080i (Not exactly sure why PBS used an interlaced transfer…Weird) that seems quite well done and accurate to the source material. I think it’s the film itself, or more specifically how the Super 16mm film elements themselves were handled that is problematic. The photography is gorgeous here, don’t get me wrong. And when the film pans over still images or cuts to an interview clip everything is sharp and detailed. The problem is the noisy and often overly-soft nature photography. Super 16mm, while not possessing the relative resolution of 35mm, should contain more video information than Blu-ray is capable of displaying. The shots in question from Ken Burns’ doc, however often lack fine-image and shadow detail and appear to have been “pushed” to draw out more colour or contrast. Everything you’ll see is picturesque and beautiful. I don’t think there’s a poorly photographed moment in the 12 hours of programming. It’s just not going to be the smooth, slick, modern-looking Blu-ray showcase that Planet Earth is.
There is plenty of value here, beyond the documentary itself. Each of the six discs sports a bonus feature. Included you’ll find a making-of featurette, a 20 minute piece on the photography, music videos, deleted segments, additional short documentaries and more. Most of the extras add about 30-40 minutes of additional content to the disc.
Watch a 26 minute preview of the National Parks: America’s Best Idea series below!