Film Review: ‘National Parks Adventure’

A slender but stirring celebration of 'America's Best Idea.'

Courtesy of MacGillivray Freeman

Taking Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” as its rallying-cry theme, “National Parks Adventure” pays tribute to the 400-plus sites across the country protected by the National Parks Service. Narrated by Robert Redford and produced in association with Expedia and Subaru, Greg MacGillivray’s nonfiction film affords a touristy view of numerous American landmarks that benefit from the government support that first began 100 years ago when, after a three-day visit with naturalist, philosopher and poet John Muir, “conservationist president” Theodore Roosevelt began the process of safeguarding the nation’s most hallowed grounds from development and destruction. Timed to the Service’s centennial, it’s a slender but stirring celebration of the U.S.’s true treasures, and apt to entice fans of the great outdoors — and outsized cinema experiences — when it premieres on Imax and large-screen formats this Friday.

Shot at more than 30 parks, “National Parks Adventure” nominally charts the cross-country trek of climber Conrad Anker and his cohorts Max Lowe and Rachel Pohl, all of whom are seen scaling towering rock faces and imposing frozen waterfalls, as well as biking, rafting and driving against many expansive panoramas that contrast the wide open land with their minuscule Subaru. However, they’re merely audience proxies, and their vacation only a flimsy pretext, for MacGillivray’s reverent snapshots of Yosemite, Yellowstone, Devils Tower (made famous by “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), Niagara Falls and countless other locales, all of which are shot in breathtaking 35mm and 70mm Imax that does justice to their daunting scale and beauty.

From a low-angled view of a river reflecting the overhead clouds, mountain ranges and glistening sun, to innumerable aerial flybys around scraggly spires and through ancient canyons, “National Parks Adventure” meticulously conveys its settings’ grandeur through striking aesthetics — which also include the diegetic sounds of wind rustling through trees, water cascading over ledges and prairie dogs chirping out unique warning calls to their mates. Like its uniformly gorgeous visuals, the aural design is so immersive and evocative that it’s a shame when the filmmakers strive to amplify their sweeping uplift with soaring songs (from Jason Mraz, Jeff Buckley and John Denver, among others), which are aggressively laid on top of action that needs no such intrusive embellishment.

While Anker’s fondness for the untamed wilderness is repeatedly articulated, and passing mention is made of the Himalayan-climbing tragedy that helped forge Anker and Lowe’s bond, the film’s attempt to convey the healing power of nature proves as cursory as its National Parks history lesson. Through dramatic re-creations as well as archival footage, MacGillivray supplies a brief primer on how Roosevelt and Muir’s Yosemite getaway led to the inception of the National Parks venture (referred to then and now as “America’s Best Idea”). While there’s little in the way of depth or specifics to those sequences, they get their primary points across clearly and quickly, allowing the material to serve (especially to young kids) as an intriguing introduction to a larger, more complex and fascinating story.

If its main triumph is delivering a tantalizing, sightseeing-style overview that encourages greater post-viewing exploration on the part of its viewers, “National Parks Adventure” also functions as a testament to celluloid, a media form that itself is in dire need of preservation in this digital day and age. One of the final works (if not the final work) to be produced with traditional Imax film cameras, MacGillivray’s documentary has a richness and clarity of image that suggests that, just as nothing quite compares to visiting America’s natural wonders in person, there’s no substitute for the peerless majesty of old-school movie techniques and technology.

Film Review: ‘National Parks Adventure’

Reviewed at American Museum of Natural History, New York, Feb. 9, 2016. Running time: <strong>43 MIN. </strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) A MacGillivray Freeman Films release of an Expedia and Subaru presentation of a MacGillivray Freeman production, in association with Brand USA. Produced by Shaun MacGillivray. Executive producers, Tom Garzilli, Mike Day, Dave Duszynski.
  • Crew: Directed by Greg MacGillivray. Written by Stephen Judson, Tim Cahill. Camera (color, widescreen, HD, Imax), Brad Ohlund; editor, Mark Fletcher, Jason E. Paul; music, Steve Wood; art directors, Libbey Woolems, Phil Clarke; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital); supervising sound editor, Andrew DeCristofaro; sound designer, Michael Payne; re-recording mixers, Ken Teaney, Marshall Garlington; visual effects producers, Matthew Muller, Matt Amick; visual effects, Visceral Image Prods.; Yosemite line producer, Neal Allen; associate producer, Sarah Kay.
  • With: Conrad Anker, Max Lowe, Rachel Pohl. Narrator: Robert Redford.