It’s been said by more than Ken Burns that the national parks are America’s best idea. In “National Parks Adventure,” opening at the Museum of Science’s Mugar Omni Theater on Friday, narrator Robert Redford makes the same claim. But after this hokey and commercialized IMAX road trip, you’ll be thinking the best idea might have been to stay at home.
Veteran giant-screen documentary director Greg MacGillivray (“The Living Sea,” “Everest”) has the sapling of a good idea: This year the National Park Service celebrates its centennial, so it’s high time to visit (or revisit) iconic parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Arches and Devil’s Tower, or more wallflower sites like Chaco Culture National Historical Park, in New Mexico; the Channel Islands National Park, off the coast of California; or the East Coast’s Acadia; and the National Mall, in Washington, D.C.
The wrong turn in this “National Parks Adventure” comes thanks to our sponsors: Subaru, Expedia, and REI. The underwriting is done in clumsy, even offensive ways, woven into a limp story the filmmakers have strung together: Let’s follow three gung-ho outdoors nuts from park to park! There’s famed climber Conrad Anker; his stepson, photographer Max Lowe; and fellow climber/artist Rachel Pohl. Yes, they drive a Subaru Outback from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters — or, at least, to the Everglades. They camp in REI-emblazoned tents. They probably rented the car using Expedia.
The visuals, naturally, are stunning. We visit Pictured Rocks National Seashore, in upper Michigan, in winter, encased in sheets of frozen waterfalls, and Katmai National Park, in the Alaskan outback, where juvenile grizzlies learn to catch salmon. The original piano and fiddle music by Steve Wood evokes an old-timey feel, especially appropriate during the tasteful re-enactment of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt’s famed Yosemite Valley camping trip of 1903, which sealed the deal to preserve Yosemite, and eventually laid the groundwork for the park system.
But our modern-day trio’s outdoorsy antics detract from the serene and inspiring beauty. Call me a traditionalist: I’ll take plunging, vertiginous aerial shots of the Grand Canyon, or Glacier, or Bryce, set to Redford’s sonorous voice-over, any day over sequences of our three stooges bro-whooping like wolves as they rock- and ice-climb and mountain bike across the nation. Or back in their Subaru (again), singing along to Little Feat’s version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
When the camera turns away from the faux-road-trip story and incessant product placement, the glory of the parks manages to upstage these distractions. This doesn’t happen often enough in “National Parks Adventure,” but when it does this land finally feels made for you and me.
NATIONAL PARKS ADVENTURE
Directed by Greg MacGillivray. Written by Stephen Judson and Tim Cahill. Narrated by Robert Redford. At Museum of Science. 50 minutes. Unrated.
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.