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The reality of drama

Steve Rose
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The star of the new Disney film Chimpanzee is the latest animal to be portrayed as having human emotions. But does such anthropomorphism give a distorted view of nature, asks STEVE ROSE

A still from the film A Bug's Life
A still from the film A Bug's Life

You could say cinema and nature got off on the wrong foot, right from the start. In 1926, an adventurer named William Douglas Burden brought back two komodo dragons to New York — the first live specimens the western world had ever seen. Most of that excitement had been generated via a movie Burden had made depicting these semi-mythical reptiles in the Indonesian wild, voraciously devouring a wild boar. By comparison, the real komodo dragons were something of a disappointment. They just lay about lethargically in their cage, and died a few months later. It later transpired that Burden’s film had been staged to amp up the drama. The dragons hadn’t actually killed the boar; it had been put there by Burden as bait. The slow reality of nature was no match for the drama of the screen, it turned out. The science couldn’t match the fiction.

One of the first to learn this lesson was the film-maker Merian C Cooper. He went on to incorporate elements of Burden’s Komodo expedition into a fictional movie: King Kong.

Come a long way,

have we?

We have come a long way since Burden’s day in many respects, but that tension between rigorous natural history and populist entertainment is still very much at work, especially now that it has migrated on to the big screen in a big way. Where once we flocked to see animals painted as man-eating monsters in the movies, Jaws-style, now we want to get closer to them, physically and spiritually. Nature films are one place where all the technological advances of film-making really come into their own: high-definition, 3D, surround sound, lightweight cameras.

But while cinema has made all these advances, nature itself hasn’t really got with the programme. We like our wildlife cinema authentic, but we also want it exciting and dramatic, and that is still a challenge.

The current solution to this dilemma can be seen this week in Chimpanzee, a new film by Disney, shot on location in the west African jungle. It’s the story of Oscar, a young chimp whose mother, Isha, is killed as the result of an attack by a rival gang. Oscar struggles to cope on his own, but is then surprisingly adopted by Freddy, the dominant male of his group. The film’s footage is unimpeachably authentic, painstakingly captured over three years, and often stunning to behold.

Science vs entertainment

But that science/entertainment split still runs through Chimpanzee. It is directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, veterans of the BBC’s distinguished Natural History unit, but instead of the soothing, informative tones of David Attenborough, the narrator strikes a rather different tone: child-friendly and all but devoid of any scientific explanation. And it is anthropomorphised to a jarring degree. The chimps are given names and ascribed feelings and motivations. It would take a heart of stone not to be moved by the plight of a cute, orphaned little chimp like Oscar. Jean-Francois Camilleri, head of Disneynature: “There’s a new philosophical current saying: ‘Let’s stop considering animals as just machines with no feelings, no emotion and no potential thinking process.’ Disney has been at the forefront of wildlife cinema since the 1940s, when Walt himself created the True-Life Adventures series Disneynature, established five years ago, is the successor to True-Life Adventures, and has set its sights firmly on the box office.

Film, not documentary

“We are not doing wildlife documentaries; we are doing films,” says Camilleri. “And just like in any movie, what’s important is the story. A good story has to have emotion, some laughter, you have to follow a character, and this character has to evolveCelebrity actors are recruited, the visuals are scrupulously authentic, but the “message” is very much in line with the values of their human creators. Disneynature’s African Cats, for example, frames its cheetah protagonist as a struggling “single mother” coping with five cubs (despite the fact that female cheetahs are generally solitary) and is crammed with eulogies to maternal love and courage. The Last Lions is almost identical, its tagline: “Witness the power of a mother’s love.” Another new film in this vein throws the anthropomorphism debate into fresh relief. Blackfish by Gabriella Cowperthwaite deals not with animals in the wild, but in captivity, namely killer whales at the SeaWorld chain of resorts in the southern U.S. These creatures are essentially coerced into performing entertaining tricks for the benefit of a public audience, but one whale has been linked to the deaths of three people. As the story progresses, ex-trainers express regret over the treatment of whales, and the lies they routinely trotted out about how “happy” the whales were. There is much sinister footage and gruesome description showing just what killer whales can do to humans if they feel like it.

Blackfish makes no attempt to anthropomorphise its whales and it doesn’t need to. If anything, we empathise with the whales more than the humans because they’re treated like animals. Does that mean they haven’t been anthropomorphised enough? Like the other nature docs, Blackfish is a gripping movie, with drama and characters and emotion, but unlike them, it’s one that reminds us how much of a gap there is between humans and animals, and between movies and reality. Thanks to cinema, we’re able to see nature better, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re any closer to it.— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013

Thanks to cinema, we’re able to see nature better, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re any closer to it.

Anthropomorphism, or personification, is attribution of human form or other characteristics to anything other than a human being. Example: ascribing human emotions or motives to forces of nature, such as hurricanes or earthquakes.


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