Review by Leonard Norwitz
Blu-ray: BBC Video & 2/entertain
Runtime: 350 min
Case: Standard Amaray Blu-ray case
Release date: August 5, 2008
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Video codec: AVC
English DD 5.1 Surround
Feature & Bonus: English SDH & Mandarin
• Hunting Dragons: A Making-Of Featurette (26:47)
Capitalizing on its phenomenal success with Planet Earth
in all video formats, the BBC has just released its new
series on China in time to coincide with the Beijing
Olympic Games. Curiously titled "Wild China" this
six-part series ventures into just many aspects of life
in China today: wild and civil. In fact, contrary to the
thrust of Planet Earth, there is considerable footage
here of the extraordinary variety of racial subgroups
that share the country with its wildlife in a kind of
harmony all but forgotten in the West.
The narrative arc of each episode is very much like that
of Planet Earth – three related segments within an
overarching theme. There is one episode titled "Tibet"
which tackles the question of sovereignty from the
outset, acknowledging Tibet to have been a "province of
China for the past 50 years." It goes on to look at that
country/province with tender regard for its culture as
well as the Everest's jumping spiders. "Heart of the
Dragon" wanders across endless rice terraces and tastes
of the dragonfly nymphs. Another extended segment tells
all about the historical and current Silk Road, from
worms, through spinning, to trade. "Beyond the Great
Wall" follows bicyclists along the Black Dragon River in
winter, and the ruins of ancient cities. In the final
episode "Tides of Change" efforts at conservation in the
context of an exploding population are examined.
The first number indicates a relative level of
excellence compared to other Blu-ray DVDs on a ten-point
scale. The second number places this image along the
full range of DVDs, including SD 480i.
While image quality Planet Earth was variable, it was so
only in relation to the source material. Not so here.
From the Bonus Feature "Hunting Dragons" we learn that
the series in shot in High Definition video. Well, you'd
never know it to look at this Blu-ray. I dare say I've
seen better picture quality on any number of 480i DVDs.
Color and contrast are generally good, but occasionally
inexplicably poor, as at the Great Wall. On the other
hand, there are precious few frames that do not suffer
from poor resolution and/or sharpness. Edges of trees or
mountainsides against a bright background are
particularly problematic. (Could China's pollution be so
bad that it effects every location, no matter how remote
or how clear the day!) In fact, the evidence is no
further away than the promo piece for Planet Earth that
begins disc two. The difference between Wild China and
Planet Earth is far from subtle – and you don't need to
compare similar scenes to see it.
Interestingly, the box for Wild China indicates that the
feature is in 1080i instead of 1080p. Even if so, this
does not explain the poor quality. Worse still: for
reasons passing understanding, disc one, with three
hours of content, is written on a 25 GB disc at bit
rates routinely around 11-16 Mbps. The 50 GB disc, with
about half an hour more content, has bit rates at least
double, with observable, though subtle improvement in
picture quality. Whatever the explanation, while the
content is fascinating, the medium is not. The larger
your display, the more you will suffer.
Audio & Music:
The narrator for this series is Bernard Hill – doubtless
a name that will not ring many bells west of the U.K.,
though Mr. Hill has a considerable vitae as a film and
television actor dating back to the 1970s. You might
remember him in the part of Theoden in Peter Jackson's
Lord of the Rings. I'm glad for having a new voice for
this series, much as I enjoyed David Attenborough's
pronouncements of galactic import. All the same I can't
say I was enraptured. Maybe I was so distracted by the
dreadful image that I couldn't give Mr. Hill his due. I
tried a few minutes with my eyes closed: that seemed to
work better. The background score – alternately oriental
and occidental - is meekly recorded, but the live sounds
come off reasonably well. Don't expect much from the
surrounds. All together, it sounds like goulash.
The menu operations couldn't be simpler – all in English
with Chinese characters above them.
Only a single featurette is included – its 16x9 480i
image is only a bit less lovely than the feature itself.
"Hunting Dragons" is an attempt to make up for the very
thing missing from the otherwise awesome Planet Earth: a
"how did they film that" segment. I'd give it an "A" for
intent and a "C-" for execution. In addition to
following the crew as it dealt with some of its more
challenging locations, the piece also serves as a big
thank-you to the people of China for letting us into
their lives and country for such an intimate picture.
Aside from this latest introduction to China, which has
to be regarded both as politically correct and
culturally fascinating, I have to report that the image
quality for this Blu-ray release will be serious bad
news for anyone expecting the level of excellence that
we have come to know and love from Planet Earth. And
that's an understatement. "A-" for the material. "D" for
production. Rent it. Or, buy it, and complain loudly.
August 10, 2008