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Dustin Putman

Humpback Whales  (2015)

(4K Ultra HD Blu-ray – 2015 – Running Time: 39:13)
Reviewed for by Dustin Putman

The Film
2.5 Stars
(Release Date: August 2, 2016) – When compared to previous 4K UHD documentary releases from Shout! Factory, "Humpback Whales" doesn't have the gravitas and majesty of "Rocky Mountain Express" or the emotional narrative drive of "Flight of the Butterflies." What it does have is a deserved reverence for its mammal subjects, their existence too often endangered by the once-prolific whaling industry. Director Greg MacGillivray, backed by Ewan McGregor's narration, has a core preservation theme to impart, driving home the point that these creatures should be able to thrive in the sea without the threat of being inhumanely hunted and, as a worst-case scenario, wiped from the planet. With whaling currently legal in only three countries—Japan, Norway and Iceland—leaps have been made in saving humpback whales, but there is still much work to be done in promoting this cause.

The bulk of the too-short, 39-minute "Humpback Whales" is neither painted in doom nor gloom, instead filled with the hope of the whales' very recovery as a species. Drinking in the beauty of the 55-foot, 50-ton creatures themselves, the film crisscrosses from the South Pacific waters of Tonga to Hawaii and Alaska, marking the 10,000-mile round-trip journeys these animals take each year. Captured with IMAX 3D cameras, the footage of the humpbacks is lovely, from the wide range of communicative sounds they make to the bond which occurs between mothers and children in the first year of their lives. All of this is scored to no less than three different versions of American Authors' irresistibly catchy pop hit "Best Day of My Life," an anthem that tonally drives home the upbeat, celebratory nature of the picture. As nature docs go, "Humpback Whales" is relatively slight and doesn't dive much deeper than what one would expect from a beginner's course on the topic. Still, it is a well-meaning and visually lively sight to behold.

Blu-ray Picture/Sound

Released on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc by Shout! Factory, "Humpback Whales" sings to the tune of an often sparkling 2160p transfer. Framed at 1.44:1, the film provides the option to view the film in High Dynamic Range (requiring a High Dynamic Range-enabled TV) or Standard Dynamic Range. If you have said capabilities, the High Dynamic Range version is the way to go. Colors burst forth, popping off the screen with a dynamism and lifelike clarity that frequently stuns. The same could be said for the image's masterful level of detail and dimensionality, particularly in above-water scenes and aerial shots. For the underwater footage of the humpback whales' sea life, the 4K Ultra HD abilities are less in evidence. Detail remains strong (for example, take a look at the scars on the whales' skin), but because of the limits of the shooting conditions the image is notably flatter and doesn't pop the way the rest of the film does. In comparing the different versions, the Standard Dynamic Range presentation still looks excellent, but the eclectic vibrancy of its colors are perhaps a shade less magnificent than what HDR provides.

The Dolby Digital Atmos audio track stands out the most when its soundtrack kicks in and also when the songs of the humpbacks envelop the viewer's home theater. This particular documentary doesn't offer sonic fireworks the same way, for example, a big-budget action blockbuster might, but one wouldn't expect it to do so. Nevertheless, there is an authentic, organic quality to Atmos audio tracks that are second to none; no other lossless (and certainly no lossy) audio offerings compare. The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release of "Humpback Whales" also includes a regular HD Blu-ray disc, a 3D Blu-ray copy and a Digital Copy for those without a 4K UHD player.

Blu-ray Features
  • Making Of Featurette (17:07, UHD)
  • Trailers:
    • The Last Reef (1:35, UHD)
    • Wonders of the Arctic (1:41, UHD)
    • Rocky Mountain Express (1:26, UHD)
    • Journey to Space (1:06, UHD)
    • Humpback Whales (1:53, UHD)
    • Flight of the Butterflies (1:10, UHD)
Bottom Line
Shout! Factory continues their embrace of the burgeoning 4K UHD format with consistently worthwhile short-form documentary that really showcase the exquisiteness of 2160p transfers, High Dynamic Range and Dolby Digital Atmos tracks. "Humpback Whales" is entertaining and hopeful even as one wishes it ran a little longer and burrowed a bit deeper. A quality 17-minute making-of featurette and the inclusion of a regular BD disc, a 3D disc and a Digital Copy only sweeten the release. Highly recommended.

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© 2016 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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