The Animal Kingdom Storms Reality TV and the Documentary Industry


Earlier this month, black and white billboard portraits of the family don were erected throughout New York City. They advertised a popular mob drama known for its sex, murder and conflicted loyalties. The caption: Tony's Out. Flowers' In. The third season of Animal Planet's Meerkat Manor was officially here.

But Flowers isn't the only furry film star that's in. Lapping at the success of movies March of the Penguins and Winged Migration, a wave of feature-length nature documentaries is coming soon to a theater near you. August saw the release of Arctic Tale, a touching story of a baby walrus' and polar bears' first year. It will be followed by The Elephants of the Okavango, the touching story of an eight-week-old elephant calf's journey through the desert. And there's also Turtle's Song, a touching story of a loggerhead turtle's journey from egg to ocean and Earth, which follows four migrating animals and their broods.

The upright, big-eyed Meerkats will have a big year. Following the success of the Meerkat Manor, both the BBC and the Discovery Network have feature-length Meerkat films in production. The cinematographer of Winged Migration is also at work on Les Animaux Amoreux. The subtle anthropomorphism of the French title is a bludgeon in its English translation: Animals in Love.

The cuddliness of these protagonists has inspired Desson Thomson of the Washington Post to name the trend the rise of the "fuzzumentary."

The name is equally descriptive, however, of the genre's blurring of traditional documentaries with Hollywoodized narratives. Arctic Tale used composite animals to create a fictional story of a polar cub it named Nanu and a walrus pup Seela. The Elephants of the Okavango publicity promotes the emotional range of its infant star, Jani, and Queen of the Kalahari, which is structured as a prequel to the Meerkat Manor series, is sure to follow the show's soap format with named cast members and telenova narration: "Finally, young Daisy tries to join the group unnoticed, but it's not going to work. She reeks of Carlos' aftershave. Despite her attempts to apologize, the group is confused and angry."

Though more overt than the TV documentaries from the Mutual of Omaha-sponsored Wild Kingdom series on Animal Planet, this is not an entirely new phenomenon. As Watching Wildlife author Cynthia Chris points out, while we tend to think of nature programming as unmediated, historically "wildlife film narration has ascribed to a fairly conservative set of ideological values." They portray the nuclear family as a firm social unit and cast those outside this unit as antagonists. Their girl-meets-boy narratives suggest universality on uniquely human social constructions. They also tend to favors species whose looks we can relate to and whose behavior can seem to match our own.

But this new genre, critics say, pushes that sort of moralizing even further. As Thomson writes, "Nature does not exist purely to entertain children. And these bears and walruses -- which would devour us if given half a chance -- are not fuzzy toys soft-shoe shuffling across a rapidly melting snow stage." Also, as exhibited in the fuss around the March of the Penguins, when some on the right lauded the bird's conservative values and progressives shot back with evidence of their one-season matrimony, these quasidocumentaries can manipulate animals' inherently apolitical behavior into powerful political agendas.

I was recently watching an episode of Meerkat Manor in which one of the females (they called her Tosca) had given birth to a litter of pups. The narrator, Sean Astin, who played one of the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, called her "the wayward daughter," and said the baby-daddy was likely from a rival Meerkat gang. According to his script, Tosca was kicked out of the den for reproducing without "her mother's permission." Never mind the question of just how a meerkat green lights a pregnancy, it seemed he stopped just short of calling her a slut. It might have been a little hypocritical to accuse others of anthropomorphism while I talked back to the TV, telling a certain hobbit he was a condescending prude. Still, I cared to remind: She's a meerkat. Getting knocked up is her primary purpose in life.

The difference this go around, however, is that the conservatives who often benefit from these documentaries are no longer on the winning side of the storyline. Directors following the classic nature narrative -- a year in the life of a particular animal -- are increasingly including commentary on how those seasons have been affected by climate change. The New York Post 's Kyle Smith wrote of Arctic Tale: "The film warns that the animals are at dire risk because of the shrinking ice cap, but the message is stamped in with editorializing: When a polar bear tries to find a hunk of ice to stand on, Latifah says, 'This is not like any winter mother bear has seen before.' (Really? In what interview did she tell you that?)"

One can argue that a creature needn't be cognizant of a narrative for it to be true. Climate change is affecting many habitats, whether or not we recognize it. Heck, other animals should be so lucky to be anthropomorphized. Coral reefs are in dire shape -- if only they had eyes. Plankton levels are dropping, threatening the ocean's entire ecosystem. I don't see them being a part of a Happy Meal tie-in anytime soon.

But even if the science of global warming is irrefutable, Smith still has a point. As far as we've has come in studying animal behavior, we still have little idea of an animal's emotional cognizance. When it comes to media representation, animals -- maddening inarticulate as they are -- are entirely at our whim. By adding a couple baby animals, a dramatic soundtrack, and a few key closeups, directors structure emotional motivations where there is little proof such feelings even exist.

''In the scene where a mother polar bear has to cast off the baby because she can't fend for the both of them anymore, it's got sort of that tough-love feel. But you see that emotion in the footage," Adam Ravetch, one of the filmmakers of Arctic Tale, told the New York Times. But try fitting the infanticide that figures in many animal colonies to a jazzy soundtrack. Critics on both sides are right to be wary of the sort of cherry-picked scenes and narrative leaps that dominate these fuzzumentaries.

After reality television got big, some producers made an active push to rename the genre. Their alternatives -- docusoap or unscripted drama -- never gained much ground, but their resistance to the "reality" moniker was effective in dampening accusations against them. Over time, we've come to accept the manipulations they make for dramatic effect: the out-of-context eye rolling, the reductive good vs. evil story arcs. Just because it is made from sugar, it doesn't taste like sugar. Most viewers are well aware of the splendafication of reality television and consume it accordingly.

Nature filmmakers are now responding similarly. They suggest their films aren't so over-reaching as our expectations are staid. Adam Leipzig, president of National Geographic Films has tried to do the same with this genre: "I don't call it a documentary. I call it a 'wildlife adventure,' because this is a movie you go to because it's fun and entertaining, not because it's good for you." Animal Planet's website pitches Meerkat Manor as "All My Children meets Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom."

But for as much as Meerkat Manor sounds like Laguna Beach and Arctic Tale looks like Survivor, such word play might not be enough. Roger Scruton, a research professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences who writes widely on animal rights issues suggests we need a new framework for our animal-human relationships. He argues that "negotiation, compromise and agreement" are the foundation of all human communities and that, rather than assigning animals rights based on a moral framework, we should give them rights based on how we use them: as pets, food or scientific study.

It only seems fair that, as movie stars, they deserve the same.

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