Wednesday, March 2, 2016

National Parks Adventure: Truly inspirational

National Parks Adventure (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang

Famed naturalist John Muir expressed it best, with a quote referenced in this sumptuous new IMAX travel documentary:

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.

Bryce Canyon National Park
During the mainstream rise of giant-screen documentaries that began in the 1970s, one production team has stood out for its crowd-pleasing blend of stunning cinematography, topical subjects and gentle advocacy: director Greg MacGillivray and producer Shaun MacGillivray, better known as the driving force behind MacGillivray Freeman Films. They’ve produced 38 films for IMAX, garnered two Academy Award nominations, and seen three of their documentaries inducted into the IMAX Hall of Fame (1976’s To Fly, 1995’s The Living Sea and — no surprise — 1998’s Everest).

I fully expect their newest, National Parks Adventure, to be accorded the same honor one day.

Thanks to a fateful Yosemite camping trip that Muir took with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 — an event recreated here — the latter was inspired to create five new national parks and 18 national monuments. That number had grown to 14 parks and 21 monuments when the National Park Service became a U.S. government agency on Aug. 25, 1916, via an act signed by President Woodrow Wilson.

Today, our country boasts 407 protected national park sites — monuments, seashores, recreation areas, lakeshores and historic sites — totaling an impressive 84 million acres: roughly the size of Germany. The National Parks Service will celebrate its centennial this summer, and I’m sure this new MacGillivray Freeman project’s timing is no accident.

The production team visited 30 of those national parks during the making of this film, while concentrating on roughly a dozen. The journey unfolds in engaging fashion, as we accompany a trio of people who’ve made visits to these scenic wonders an annual summer road trip: famed climber Conrad Anker, adventure photographer Max Lowe, and climber and artist Rachel Pohl.

We thus get the equivalent of back-stage passes as they climb the wonderfully odd-shaped rock formations of Bryce Canyon National Park; scale the massive parallel cracks of the Devil’s Tower National Monument, which Native Americans believed were the long, slashing claw marks of a giant bear; walk beneath — and climb — the frozen waterfalls of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore; and — in what seems sheer insanity — recklessly race mountain bikes along the sandstone seabeds of Moab’s Slickrock Trail.

It’s all breathtaking, particularly as recorded by aerial cinematographer Ron Goodman, who captures the vertigo-inducing vistas with (geek alert) his gyroscopically stabilized SpaceCam helicopter mounts.

We also spend time at Yellowstone’s hot springs, thermal basins and geysers, in a sequence highlighted by an overhead view of the awesome — and more than a little frightening — “eye of Yellowstone.” Additional stops include the Grand Canyon, Glacier National Park, Crater Lake, Arches National Park and — not to be missed — the giant sequoias of Yosemite.

Foraging for salmon, in Alaska's Katmai National Park and Preserve
Lighter moments include a visit with inquisitive prairie dogs — one of which sniffs its way right up to the camera lens — and young brown bears attempting to catch salmon in the Brooks River, which runs through Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve. The latter sequence is captured in exquisite slow motion by director of photography Brad Ohlund’s (another geek alert) Phantom Flex 4K digital camera, which shoots a jaw-dropping 970 frames per second.

In a word, the results are stunning.

Commentary and explanatory segues are made throughout by Robert Redford, whose obvious love for these breathtaking locales shows in the passion he brings to each narrative observation. He also admits that Utah’s five majestic national parks — Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands — are a major reason he has made that state his home.

As has become customary with MacGillivray Freeman films, the amazing visuals are intercut with informative animation clips, in this case occasional views of a map of the United States, which shows the locations of our many national parks; and a topographical route that follows the ambitious trip taken by Anker, Lowe and Pohl.

Greg MacGillivray regards the latter trio as ideal park ambassadors who characterize (quoting from the film’s press notes) “the way the parks speak to adventurers, artists, athletes and anyone who wants to challenge themselves physically, artistically and spiritually within.”

Thanks to the IMAX cinematography, we’re vicariously alongside Anker and his two companions, as they make some of these death-defying ascents. (My take: They’re crazy. But I do love watching them being crazy.)

The on-screen action is complemented by a wealth of folk, pop and rock anthems, often via alternative covers: Aussie rocker Scott Matthew’s handling of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song”; Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”; and (needless to say) twin covers of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” by Bruce Springsteen and Little Feat.

Additional tunes include Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” and new music from Jason Mraz, The Lumineers, Brandi Carlile, Andy Grammer and others.

My one complaint concerns the exasperatingly self-indulgent infomercials by corporate sponsors Subaru and Expedia, which both precede and conclude the film. Granted, corporate financing is important these days, but Subaru’s claim to be a leading agent of environmental reform is eye-rolling, to say the least; it leaves an unpleasant taste after an otherwise inspirational experience.

As Redford sums up, “The film captures the stunning beauty of our wild places, and reminds us that these landscapes are an essential part of the human spirit.”

Amen to that.

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