[2 October 2013]
The nature film occupies a particular place in social consciousness. It doesn’t matter if they’re made-for-TV nature specials or big-budget IMAX explorations of the world’s deepest caves, nature films have a tendency to simultaneously highlight the beauty of the world around us while insinuating that humans aren’t a part of this real nature. While North America doesn’t escape all the problems of nature documentaries, it masterfully breaks the fourth wall standing between the audience and wily, wild nature.
The cinematography here is great, but that’s to be expected from a big-budget nature program aired on a major network. What’s truly impressive about North America is the narration. Tom Selleck’s rugged voice is a great match for this realistic look at the triumphs and cruelties of nature. He evokes deep emotions with his tenor, helping the viewer feel the terror of the poor jack rabbit about to be eaten by a jaguar, or the fawn trying desperately to run from a coyote.
What’s more, the narration has been designed to consider North America as a whole. Throughout the series, the animals that are highlighted are referred to as Americans, reminding us that they’re also an integral part of this part of the continent. As the show takes us on a journey through Canada, the US, Mexico, and Central America, we also see other players in what is painted as the grand drama of nature.
Landscape and weather is featured here, especially in the episodes “Outlaws and Skeletons” and “Born to be Wild”. Selleck gives viewer insights into how the animals they see manage to survive in terrain that often seems impossible to endure. And it’s not just landscapes, animals, and the weather that are studied as a part of the ecosystem. It’s humans, too. Viewers learn about the spread of humans across North America. While there are sad tales of human encroachment on nature, there are also great stories about conservation.
The narration strikes a balance between the wishy-washy, ultra-humanized narration for March of the Penguins and the overly clinical style of educational nature films. Most of the time, there’s just enough anthropomorphism to help us relate to the stories of the animals we see. Things tend to get a little mushy at times, especially when baby animals are involved. But who could resist gushing over the sight of a bear and her cub cuddled together during hibernation?
The too-cute footage of the cub and mom makes the viewer aware of something else: some of these shots seem like they’d have been impossible to capture. Closeups of bighorn sheep locked in territorial battles are so sharp that the sheer power of the animals violently butting their heads together can’t be missed. The final episode of the series, “North American Revealed”, gives viewers a detailed look at how some of the show’s most amazing scenes were captured. A large portion of the episode is dedicated to a film crew working in the midst of Hurricane Irene.
Each episode takes up with a different general theme or area of the country. One of our favorites is “Outlaws and Skeletons”, which features lovely narration about the Mojave that even Edward Abbey could have liked (begrudgingly). Selleck calls the far reaches of Death Valley a place suitable only for “outlaws” and animals made of tough stuff. Here North America really shines when it comes to considering what makes up nature. We see not only the resilient animals of the desert, but also the stark landscape that makes the Mojave what it is. It’s both beautiful and terrifying to watch this deadly landscape unfurl in all of its majesty.
North America deserves praise for its well-balanced look at the continent, but could have benefitted from more footage in Central America. There’s great footage of turtles and hummingbirds in Costa Rica, but there’s simply too little footage from other countries in the region. Despite this omission, the series can still be considered a strong representation of the ecosystem of North America. One of its most impressive aspects is the soundtrack, which is a great combination of nature sounds and American rock. Discovering the connections between well-known songs and the footage is a real joy that most viewers will appreciate.
This seven-part series originally aired on the Discovery Channel and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. We recommend the Blu-ray for the best home viewing experience. North America is full of intense, impressive visuals and ought to be seen in the highest quality possible. The Blu-ray also offers some great special features. The filmmakers’ commentary, available on select episodes, provides fun and interesting information about the behind-the-scenes aspects of the show. A photo gallery, “Atmospheric Audio Experience” and Top Ten feature are also included.