“National Parks Adventure”: An Omni Ode to Our Parks as Playgrounds

“National Parks Adventure”: An Omni Ode to Our Parks as Playgrounds

In the rootsy jukebox that soundtracks the new National Parks Adventure, two songs are actually heard twice each. One of those songs is unsurprising: if you thought you were going to see a film about the National Park system without getting both the Bruce Springsteen and Little Feat versions of “This Land is Your Land,” you had another think coming.

The other is less obvious: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Besides the fact that the singer-songwriter is actually Canadian (shhh), the song isn’t about land or home or summertime: it’s about a conflicted relationship.

“Hallelujah” ends up highlighting two subtexts in National Parks Adventure. There’s a clear religious allusion, particularly when the song is heard as three vacationers explore a sanctuary-like ice cave on Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Then, there’s also the theme of our conflicted relationship with the land we’ve made ourselves stewards of.

National Parks Adventure, created to celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service, emphasizes the parks as sites of pilgrimage and healing. (The film is now playing at huge-screen theaters across the country, and opens at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Omnitheater on March 4.)

We hear about how Teddy Roosevelt found solace in the land after his wife and mother died (needless to say, there are T.R. and John Muir re-enactors shown in sepia tone); and we meet latter-day adventurer Conrad Anker, who journeys to the parks for both recreation and shared mourning with the adult son of his late friend.

Narrator Robert Redford sings the praises of “America’s best idea” while we watch Anker and his companions drive, climb, and bike their way through the parks. Veteran giant-screen director Greg MacGillivray delivers plenty of stunning vistas, including the vertiginous aerial shots you’d demand your money back if you didn’t get.

It’s a film about the National Parks as a national playground, but the past and future degradation of the land looms ominously in a way that doesn’t always jibe with the film’s merry mien.

We hear about how Native Americans regarded Devil’s Tower as sacred, for example, just moments before we watch Anker et al scramble their way up its side. We’re assured that the Everglades’ National Park status has assured the wetlands’ perpetual protection — but there’s no mention of the imminent threat the Everglades face from rising sea levels due to global warming, which all those great American road trips (cue musical montage) are helping to accelerate.

The tensions underlying the film’s vision of the parks as places for one and for all are underlined by a message that comes crashing in before the closing credits: we’re told that all those visitors to the National Parks are creating waste-disposal problems, but that Subaru (yes, Subaru) is here to help! Cars seem to be, as Homer Simpson once said about alcohol, “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”

National Parks Adventure celebrates a solid century with the National Parks — a century in which deforested areas were reforested, in which development was held at bay, and in which millions queued up for their own National Parks adventures.

Will that kind of experience remain sustainable? Was it ever? What does the future hold for America’s National Parks — and for America generally? Safe to say, it’s going to be an adventure.

Jay Gabler