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STUDIO: BBC Warner
RATED: Not rated (contains extensive non-human sex and violence)
RUNNING TIME: 174 minutes (3 episodes)
• Attenborough and The Giant Egg
• Lemurs of Madagascar
It’s like Planet Earth but only one island.
Narrated by Sir David Attenborough
The jaw-dropping camera work of the globe-trotting BBC Planet Earth series becomes laser-focused on the island of Madagascar where over 80% of the species don’t exist anywhere else on Earth.
I prefer my nature documentaries with a light touch, so the BBC approach is sublime. I think with nature shows you can take two different paths: the Man Vs. Wild approach or the Survivorman approach. Both programs cover ostensibly the same genre material, but are vastly different. Man Vs. Wild is heavily produced and edited, with focus on a dynamic personality, Bear Grylls, doing outrageous things in front of the camera whilst production crew and safety personnel hover just out of frame. Survivorman has low-key Canadian Les Stroud as a jack-of-all-trades; because he has to lug his cameras around with him, his shots are much more carefully chosen, and don’t always focus on his face as he talks about doing something wacky like eating poop or drinking pee. Since he isn’t always ‘info-blasting” your face with ‘facto-nuggets’ Les Stroud finds time for quiet rumination and dignified respect for nature.
Just like at the titles: Stroud merely survives nature whereas Grylls finds time to defeat it. Fuck you nature! I drank pee with ten doctors out of frame, therefore you lose. Suck it. Why am I talking about Bear Grylls? Because he sleeps in hotels, films segments yards away from major highways, and trucks in ‘wild horses’ so that he can find and tame them; what a jackass. It’s amazing that he hails from the same country as the classy-as-shit documentary filmmakers behind this ground breaking series.
The folks behind the Planet Earth series could teach him a few things if he would stop drinking pee long enough to listen. Here’s a pretty comprehensive first lesson: point the camera at nature. I know Grylls’s show is supposed to be about human survival, so this complaint applies more to other shows. “Yes”, thinks the viewer, “that man that catches monsters is very very interesting, now please point the camera at the monsters again.” The only danger here is that you might learn something; Sir David mentioned that “80% of Madagascar’s wildlife is not found anywhere else on Earth” enough times that I probably couldn’t scrub that fact from my brain if I tried.
The personalities on display here don’t compete for the spotlight with nature. Sir David Attenborough is the real life version of the character his brother Sir Richard played in Jurassic Park. No, just kidding, not really. Sir David is an esteemed naturalist and broadcaster who narrates the program. Sir David is no stranger to Madagascar, visiting first in 1960 as part of the BBC show Zoo Quest where his team shot the first films ever of the fascinating island nation. Sir David returned fifty years later, but his equipment is more impressive than the 16mm B&W camera used originally.
Sir David only becomes the focus in the bonus feature episode “Attenborough and the Giant Egg” where he appears on camera throughout to recollect his previous visits and tour the island all over again with a new perspective. This episode was broadcast after the original series and does feel a little different, since it’s more about Attenborough than the wildlife. But Attenborough’s life has been devoted to wildlife, so it isn’t too different, and his charming quest to solve a five decade mystery of an enormous egg is engrossing. They don’t need to use lots of jump cuts, or narrators filling you in on what you already saw, or even dramatic music to increase the tension. The gigantic egg, reassembled like a ‘3d jigsaw puzzle’ from thousands of pieces, and it’s mysterious origin are all that’s necessary to hook the audience. Where the hell did this thing come from? Were there really birds this big? Where did they go? What did they taste like?
There are a few other segments that feature humans at the focus instead of wildlife, but they are also uniformly entertaining. Some are almost comic relief, as you watch disheveled and distressed camera men struggle to achieve the impossibly ambitious shots of the series. The crew deadpans jokes as they construct flimsy camera stands above dark, dirty water that would almost certainly destroy the expensive electronics. One segment in particular, where the crew tries to film a previously un-filmed species of lemur, is a series of hilariously escalating challenges.
First they must take motor-canoes to the remote part of the island where the lemurs live. Then they have to drag all their equipment up a mountain into a jungle. Then they have to unpack and construct a small metal platform that they must also raise up several stories into the jungle canopy. Before one poor bastard can be hoisted up to film the camera-shy lemur, they must wait what seems like an eternity for the damn rain to stop. This is just one of dozens of species showcased, and it gives the viewer an idea of the immense undertaking necessary to complete this project when we can watch the weeks and weeks of effort required to generate at most a few minutes of footage.
If you like your documentaries full of sex and violence, then you won’t be disappointed. The animals of Madagascar are like any other animals: they spend most of their time fighting over sex. They also fight over food and territory and sometimes they have sex with no fighting. I felt genuine tension and suspense watching two chameleons hiss and chomp at each other high in the treetops. The combatants wrestle each other down to lower branches, not stopping until one of them is completely displaced from the tree. It’s a huge tree, but it’s only big enough for one of them, who hopes to attract a mate with his lush vegetation and ample branches. Don’t get me started on watching two dragonflies viciously air-wrestle over a prime piece of river real estate that has attracted a female; I could barely look at the screen the first time.
There are only two reasons keeping me from awarding the series the full 5 stars. The first is some of the musical choices, but if you are unlike myself and find child choirs to be moving instead of creepy, then your mileage may vary on this point. The second reason might sound absurd, but it’s just not long enough! (Obligatory ‘that’s what she said) The proper series is three episodes of about an hour each, and the two special features run 39 and 59 minutes. BBC Planet Earth devoted ten hours to the whole planet, so it would seem fair that Madagascar gets five or so hours, but since 80% of Madagascar’s wildlife is not found anywhere else in the world, they could have done another full ten hour series and I would have been immensely pleased. I just wanted more, damn it. (‘that’s also what she said) There are so many bizarre creatures and other-worldly locations showcased that I always felt a slight pang of regret when they moved on to the next scintillating piece of flora or fauna. “Not yet! For shit’s sake, not yet!” I would scream.
The BBC Planet Earth series and it’s related projects continue to be one of the most compelling reasons for High Definition. When you first pop the disk in, you’ll be greeted with a montage of slow-mo money shots from the Earth and Life series, including such gems as hippos wrestling, lizards leaping and baboons bathing. They want you to know right from the start you’ll be seeing things with such mind-blowing clarity that you might as well have transported out of your living room. Nearly every other moment in the series features stunning visuals that will make you grateful that you made the leap to high def. It’s really that gorgeous.
Attenborough and The Giant Egg, 59 minutes: “Fifty years after collecting a giant fossilized egg in Madagascar, Davis Attenborough returns to discover the fate of the largest birds to ever live on the planet.”
Lemurs of Madagascar, 39 minutes: A standard definition program featuring charming zoologist Charlotte Uhlenbroek paling around with, you guessed it, the lemurs of Madagascar, specifically a group of ring-tailed lemurs.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars