This review also appears on TWITCHfilm.com
The arrival of any Attenborough narrated, epic BBC Natural History unit documentary is cause for celebration. The small elements are like Pavlovian cues for any fan of these films, leaving us drooling over the sans-serif font (Helvetica Narrow? Century Schoolbook Gothic?), the massive panorama shots, the endless pullback zooms, all tied to the series that I first encountered with the astonishing Blue Planet, and continued with series such as Planet Earth and Life.
While the Discovery channel in the US has found it better to create truncated versions of these films using more accessible narration (Alec Baldwin did this particular work), the king of all nature commentary remains Sir David Attenborough. We see him at the outset, bundled up in a bright red parka while standing on the spot of the geographical north pole. By the end of the first episode, we also see him standing at the equivalent spot in the South, tying the two hemispheres together with his 15,000 mile journey. While Sir David’s been sequestered in the voice-over booth for many of the more recent docs, it’s wonderful to see him still out there in person, still enthusiastically bringing us stories of the wonders of our planet.
Every time one of these docs is produced, there are several “holy shit” moments, things that even avid fans of the previous docs will continue to be astounded by. Frozen Planet is no different, from incredible shots of wolf attacks to underwater lightning-like frozen shards that in slow motion kill anything it touches, the BBC team has once again surpassed even heightened expectations.
I was also super pleased that after the principal documentaries that dealt with wild creatures, told via an effective breakdown by season, there was an entire episode about those people that live in such harsh environs.
The last episode is the most personal for Attenborough, a kind of overview of his own connection with the Arctic and Antarctic. I was quite worried that it’d be some polemic or screed, but those fears were needless. He presents the facts of the radical changes without an explicit agenda, showing the undisputed changes that are taking place at our poles. He also doesn’t shy away from addressing those creatures that are actually benefiting from the changes in environment, avoiding the temptation to moralize what’s taking place. The astonishing and dramatic transformation of the polar regions is documented effectively, leaving to others to make draw their own conclusions about causes and other issues that lie outside the scope of this work.
After spending some time with more child-oriented nature docs of late (here and here), this film did well to remind that the the wild is sometimes a cruel and unfair place.
We see some incredibly brutal imagery, from Orca hunting seals to a harrowing battle between a wolf and a young muskox. The cameras do not linger on the gore in a gratuitous way, but nor to they shy away from the actual proceedings. For those with very young children, there may be moments that are quite distressing, but they are presented with enough context and subtlety that they’re some of the highlights of the entire piece.
Frozen Planet is a welcome addition to the pantheon of these astonishingly excellent docs that Fothergill and co. have been producing for the last several decades, a testament to the power of film to grant an audience access to the wonders of our world.
It’s not so hard to recommend this as a must-have title to anyone with a Blu-Ray player, a decent television, and a sense of wonder. Spending years capturing some of these sequences, the 1080i HD imagery is almost uniformly excellent. Brief moments of softness or noise are almost certainly attributable to the conditions under which some of these sights were captures.
The BBC has often used full symphonic scores for these works, and Frozen Planet is no exception. The lossless 5.1 soundtrack is demo worthy, the sweeping music and thumping sound of the ice grinding is wonderfully balanced. Works of this type rely almost exclusively on post-synchronous sound, and sometimes the BBC Nature Unit has gone a bit too far in the foley department, almost taking the audience out of the event through excessive use of artificially heightened sounds (insects in particular often suffer this fate). I’m happy to say that they’ve dialed this down greatly for this work, the sounds seem well in keeping with the actual captured imagery.
I was livid when Planet Earth was first released on Blu-Ray and they dropped the 10-minute making-of docs that were crafted for each episode (the fact that they were contained on the DVD release was even more insulting). Thankfully, BBC and Warner have rectified this matter with subsequent releases (including a re-release of PE that reinstated these little gems).
Each of the seven episodes of Frozen Planet has its own “Freeze Frame” feature at the conclusion, a brief doc about the shooting challenges about a given sequence. From setting up a gimble arm on a boat to clambering over a cliff to film a man collecting eggs, these behind-the-scenes moments are almost always as wonderful as the main documentaries themselves.
On the final disc, there are a number of other supplements:
Science at the End of the Earth has Attenborough back on screen talking in the first-person, highlighting more of the Antarctic station and those that find themselves living down South throughout the year. A kind of addendum to the main documentary, it does well to flesh out the lives of those doing research in a most inhospitable locale.
Production Video Diaries were a real surprise, over an hour and a half of vignettes shot often first-person by the filmmakers themselves. While is a supreme annoyance they dropped a “play all” option from the disc, requiring you to click on the titles of all 50ish docs, it’s certainly worth it if you take the time. The clips are all in SD, clearly set for some website somewhere, but the fact that they’re included on disc is a happy thing indeed.
Frozen Planet: The Epic Journey is kind of a cheat, a 60 minute “greatest hits” version of the 7-part doc. Slightly more child friendly, I guess this could be used as an introduction for those still too young to sit through the longer version.
There’s also the option to simply watch the entire series while listening to the Isolated Score Track, if you’re feeling a need to put on some Polar video wallpaper at your next party. If I were being snarky, I’d bitch that it’s a stereo track only.
Hey, you like our planet? Have any sense of intellectual curiosity? Then buy Frozen Planet, it’s really that simple. Oh, and pick up Life and the Planet Earth SE while you’re at it, they’re all quite exceptional in their own way, and will make you look at where we live in a whole new light.