National Parks, The: America's Best Idea
Release Date(s)2009 (October 6, 2009)
Okay... I know what some of you are probably thinking: A 12-hour, 6-part PBS documentary series on America's national parks? Even for Ken Burns, that seem a stretch. After all, this is hardly as interesting as World War II, or the Civil War, or jazz, or baseball. I mean, I love nature too, but this is seriously dry material... right? Well, yes... sort of. And no.
You see, once you take the leap, you begin to appreciate just what Burns and company saw in the subject matter. The idea of setting aside the best, most beautiful portions of the country - not to exploit economically or for just the rich and well-to-do to enjoy, but for EVERYONE to enjoy for ALL time - that is a uniquely American idea. It's an idea that's intimately wrapped up in our national identity, and what the Founding Fathers intended for our Democracy to be. The idea is also the kernel for telling scores of fascinating personal stories - stories of Americans from all walks of life, who sacrificed much to ensure that the natural beauty of our country was preserved.
As presented on this 6-disc Blu-ray set from PBS and Paramount, the video quality is generally excellent, though one should remember when viewing that the series was created using a variety of historical image sources, including old photos and vintage film footage. The bulk of it was also shot on Super 16 film, which shows its character in terms of occasional grain, color fidelity and contrast issues. The audio is Dolby True HD lossless, though the documentary nature of the subject only requires so much sonic wiz-bang. Most of it is narration with music and sparing nature sound effects, along with on-camera interview audio and wild sound. Suffice it to say that the presentation is every bit as good as intended, and more than good enough to please most documentary film fans.
In terms of bonus material, the set includes outtake footage, a series of additional short films (presented under the titles Contemporary Stories from America's National Parks and The National Parks: This Is America), a piece on the series' music and a making-of featurette. It's not a lot, but again it's more than enough for this particularly release.
Though it's far from Ken Burns' best film, The National Parks is a fascinating and gradually-engrossing look at a uniquely American notion and bit of history. The Blu-ray version is nice, but viewing it really makes me long to have Burns' better works on disc in HD. Here's hoping that his recent The War, not to mention his all-time classic The Civil War, arrive on Blu-ray sooner rather than later.