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Documentary Films about Animals

Animals Are Among the Most Popular Subjects for Documentaries

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Documentary Films about Animals

A penguin pair from "March of the Penguins"

© Jerome Maison, Bonne Pioche Productions
Whether they're wild or domesticated, animals fascinate us. We love watching them--which makes them enormously popular subjects for both documentary films and narrative features, those screened in theaters and those broadcast on network and cable television. And, we all have our list of best animal documentaries.

Telling Animal Tales

However, for the most part, documentary films and narrative features present their critters quite differently.

Narrative features, such as the frequently remade Lassie and Flicka treat animals as their leading actors, protagonists whose behavior is integral to the telling of their story. As protagonists, the animals are endowed with evident human-like traits: love, loyalty, heroic goals.

This humanizing of animals, known as anthropomorphism, is commonplace in fiction film, live and animated.

In documentary film, which is characterized by the filmmaker's commitment to present real life as it is, anthropomorphism is pretty much taboo--at least from the documentary filmmaker's perspective.

In the Oscar winning March of the Penguins, director Luc Jacquet definitely lets penguins be penguins. And you see all of their natural behavior, both appealing and off putting. The only nasty little penguin secret Jacquet didn't capture with his camera is their terrible stench--well, he wasn't working in smell-o-vision.

Audiences may associate the antics of the cute little birds--who waddle like Charlie Chaplin and, unlike Mr. Chaplin, mate for life--with our own human behavior. But in March of the Penguins, the anthropomorphism is a projection from the viewers, not the celluloid.

Anthropomorphic Appeal

Not all documentary directors are equally purist about anthropomorphism, however. And, sometimes suggesting that animals have human traits can give the filmmaker's underlying message greater impact.

Take Arctic Tale, for example. In this documentary film, directors Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson make their compelling case for environmental protection by showing us two Arctic critters, Nanu, the polar bear cub, and Seela, the walrus pup, who face starvation because the Arctic ice cap is melting so rapidly due to global warming. The film's footage is pure cinema vérité, but the narration suggests that the nuzzling behavior we seen in Seela is human-like familial love and that the scrawny scavenging Arctic fox who shadows Nanu is the bear's best friend.

The Tricks of the Trade

While this is an unusual approach, it's easy to understand why the filmmakers took it. Ravetch and Robertson care passionately about the environment, and their film is a purposeful call to action.

After all, documentary filmmakers are storytellers, too. And they use all the tricks of their trade--compelling voice over narration, dramatic editing and intertitles to engage, convince and entertain their audiences.

However, documentary filmmakers focusing on animal subjects don't have the option of reenactment, a technique sometimes used in documentary films covering historical events and other subjects. So, the footage you see in animal documentaries is most likely authentic--the real deal.

Telling Animal Tales

It's rare that manmade or invented animals appear in documentary films--and, when they do, the films they appear in are usually documentaries about art.

The Cats of Mirikitani (2006) introduces us to the series of wonderful paintings and drawings of felines by Jimmy Mirikitani, a homeless artist. We quickly see that these creatures of his own invention are, indeed, his best friends.

Like the baby bear and walrus in Arctic Tale, these documented cats are meant to lead into a story that's larger than the sum of its parts.

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