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DVD Review: Smithsonian Wildlife Collection

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As a child one of my favorite television genres was the nature documentary. Our family didn’t seem to have any on video (nor did we have cable), so trips to the grandparents were always a delight when a nature show would pop onto the screen. Thankfully nature documentaries have come a long way in the past 30 years, and have come into their own, even achieving popularity as feature length theatrical releases.

Smithsonian Networks' Wildlife Collection gives a new spin on the nature documentary by not only exploring the animals themselves, but by giving insight into the lives of the researchers and filmmakers who seek to capture animals in the wild. This box set includes three DVDs: Pandas in the Wild, The Big Blue, and Wanted: Anaconda.

Pandas in the Wild follows a team of researchers into the Chinese highlands in search of the giant panda. Finding a small group of individuals, the team is able to capture scenes rarely filmed in the wild – panda mating rituals, the secluded dens where the mothers nurse their young, and the cub’s first forays into the world around it. Because these scenes are captured in the wild and on the run, or crawl in some cases, the dense bamboo and rock outcroppings often obfuscate the view. You might not realize the pandas are mating without the help of the female narrator, for example. You’ll be hearing a lot of cooing from your children as the mother and cub snuggle and nurse – if you’re not careful, you might even join in!

The Big Blue is the slowest paced of the triad. Featuring the search for blue whales feeding on krill, much of the screen time is devoted to waiting, speculating on the whales’ possible location, and exploring the currents that bring the whales to the coast of Australia. This film also features more of the surrounding ecosystem than the other two. The birds, seals, fish, and krill that benefit from deep, nutrient-dense ocean currents are all prominently featured as well. My conceptions of the feeding and hunting of baleen whales has been forever changed (and corrected) by the insights and footage shared in this title.

The disc also includes an additional 40-minute documentary Footprints on the Water: The Nan Hauser Story which explores the life work of a scientist dedicated to the conservation of beaked whales. Hauser’s life in the Cook Islands and work in whale acoustics, humpback research, and more are all touched on in this further exploration of the limits of modern whale knowledge.

Wanted: Anaconda is the glossiest production of the three – featuring huge, rippling snake muscles in dramatic lighting. It also includes the most high-tech gadgetry such as a remotely controlled plane equipped with size-measuring photographic equipment, mobile submersible video cameras, and a heat sensor equipped, remotely operated car. An international team treks through the rainforest of Guyana in search for the world’s longest anaconda – a type of snake believed to grow to over 30 feet in length and as wide around as a man’s body.

In their travels they get up close and personal with these huge reptiles, and footage of a dead anaconda, a female giving birth underwater, her small and numerous prodigy, and a snake breeding ball are all included. This is my six-year-old’s favorite by far; the snake sightings are frequent and highly visible. Personally I had to ponder the wisdom of baiting heat-seeking predators with synthetic stuffed animals filled with balloon heat-packs presented as a tasty treat. Otherwise the documentary has both eye appeal and interesting content.

Each title runs approximately 45 minutes, and features crisp, clear cinematography (with the exception of a few scenes of crawling through bamboo in China where some debris appears on the camera lens), and vivid portrayal of the subject animals in their native environments. Like most nature documentaries, old earth timelines are sprinkled throughout the series, with a section devoted to evolutionary theories presented as fact on Pandas in the Wild. Potential buyers should also note that there is no significant financial benefit to buying the titles boxed as opposed to singly, so if there’s one single title you’re interested in you can buy it independently without experiencing a loss of savings.

After watching this series of researchers and scientists working in the field in search of answers and data to fill in their many gaps in understanding, it’s undeniable how much territory has yet to be uncovered in the world of biology. Young science and animal lovers, take note! While it can seem that there are no new discoveries to be made, this assumption can’t be further from the truth. The world still contains many mysteries yet to be solved.

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