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How March of the Penguins ruined the nature documentary

Presenting the monkey stars of Monkey Kingdom. Very photogenic.
Presenting the monkey stars of Monkey Kingdom. Very photogenic.
Disney Nature
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Just how stupid do the producers of most nature documentaries think American filmgoers are?

Year after year, movie studios release nature documentaries that strain far too hard to force the animals in them to conform to traditional narratives and story arcs, when it would be just as fascinating to simply watch animals being animals, especially if they're cute.

And if you don't think there's at least some portion of the moviegoing public that would be totally fine with beautifully shot footage of animals in their native habitats, let me introduce you to the concept of zoos. They're apparently quite popular.

The problem with so many nature documentaries is that they take gorgeous images shot in the sorts of wild places the vast majority of us will never have the chance to visit, then force them into simplistic narratives so that they might be more palatable to a mass audience. By doing so, these producers and directors are taking the beauty and mystery of the wild world around us and turning them into just another bland story you've heard a million times before.

Monkey Kingdom forces a story arc on amazing nature footage for no good reason

Take Monkey Kingdom, released April 17 by Disney Nature, the company's specialty arm focused exclusively on nature documentaries. If you pay attention only to the images, then this is a tremendous film. It follows a troupe of macaque monkeys living out their lives in the Sri Lankan jungle. The film explores their social order, then observes as they're kicked out of their home by a rival monkey troupe and are forced to take shelter in a human city.



There's a weirdly apocalyptic bent to much of the film, particularly in the sections where the monkeys try to live their lives amid human beings. But it's leavened by the fact that the monkeys are, well, monkeys. They bounce around the jungle, swinging from vines and smacking each other in the head. They make funny faces and chitter at each other in greeting. Monkeys are fun animals to watch — just human enough for us to read emotions into their interactions, while being just animal enough to arouse curiosity as to their true intentions.

The problem, then, is that the film is completely unable to let the images tell the story. Instead, it plasters the film with omnipresent narration by Tina Fey, who affects funny voices when the monkeys do goofy things and jokes about mushrooms being like potato chips to monkeys — who can't eat just one! Fey's not bad, as narrators go, and she didn't write the script she has to deliver. But it's still irritating to be watching a monkey, wondering what it's up to, and then hear someone provide the most simplistic answer possible.

Even worse is how Monkey Kingdom refuses to let viewers concoct their own stories about their primate cousins. The film's protagonist — a young female monkey dubbed Maya — is shoehorned into a fairy-tale princess story arc, complete with a cover of Salt-N-Pepa and En Vogue's "Whatta Man" when a handsome male monkey outsider joins the troupe.

That would be bad enough, but director Mark Linfield also does viewers the disservice of editing the film in such a way that we can never trust the essential veracity of what he's saying — a real issue in a documentary.

Sure, we're told that the father of Maya's son is the aforementioned new guy in town, but Linfield almost never shows us the two monkeys in the same shot, making it harder to trust the "love story" being sold to viewers.

We have no real reason to trust the narrative arc Linfield sells, and the monkeys never seem to occupy the same space, which drastically undercuts the relationships between them being sold. It sometimes feels as if Linfield shows us Maya in one location, then cuts to another monkey somewhere else entirely, trying to sell a connection that doesn't actually exist.

This attempt to force a narrative onto footage that doesn't really require one is a constant in Disney Nature's films. The company's conservation efforts are welcome, and it's just cool that a major Hollywood studio has an entire arm devoted to nature documentaries. But these films are too often facile disappointments, coupling great raw footage with weak storytelling that constantly undercuts it.

But why? The answer, as with so many terrible things, has to do with penguins.

March of the Penguins destroyed the nature documentary

You can tell the story of the rise and fall of the nature documentary in just two films. The first is the 2003 French documentary Winged Migration. The film, directed by Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud, and Michel Debats, follows many types of birds migrating around the world. It was filmed over four years, on all seven continents, and for the purely jaw-dropping quality of its footage it's one of the most stunning documentaries ever made.

It was also hugely successful. Grossing more than $11.6 million at the box office and scoring an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, it was the most successful nature documentary in American history. (The prior box office champion had been the insect-themed Microcosmos from the same studio, which grossed just under $1.5 million.)

But Winged Migration doesn't try to hold your hand. It accepts that the impulses that drive these birds are fundamentally alien to human beings — no matter how much we can understand them scientifically. Yes, the footage is amazing, but Winged Migration is basically a non-narrative art film — and all the more effective for it.

The commercial success of Winged Migration, considerable though it was, was blown away by 2005's March of the Penguins. That film decided to focus its story of animals around the emotion of love. Narrator Morgan Freeman spoke soothingly over footage of penguins wandering the Antarctic snowscape, on their way to lay eggs that will eventually hatch into cute, fuzzy chicks. And he framed everything the penguin parents did in terms of their all-consuming love for both each other and their chicks.

March of the Penguins isn't a bad film. Again, the footage it captures is so impressive that in and of itself it makes the film worth watching. And Freeman's narration is notably less intrusive than, say, Fey's in Monkey Kingdom. But March of the Penguins fundamentally doesn't trust its audience to empathize with birds journeying into the depths of a frozen wasteland unless it can pin that journey to a simplistic emotional arc.

That decision worked, too. Penguins made over $77 million at the box office — the second-most-successful documentary of all time, after only Fahrenheit 9/11. It won the Oscar for Best Documentary. It's easy to see why everybody learned the wrong lessons from it.

Animals don't have to be like humans to be movie stars

There's perhaps no greater example of Penguins' seismic impact on the American nature documentary scene than Oceans, the follow-up to Winged Migration from some of the same filmmakers. Released in multiple versions around the globe in 2010, the American version features Pierce Brosnan's voice refusing to let the once again jaw-dropping footage speak for itself. (The French original featured Perrin, who also narrated the original version of Winged Migration.) It also cuts out 20 minutes of footage, mostly depicting nature's brutality.

This is an increasingly common trick — where other countries get more scientifically minded versions of these films, Americans get movies where narrators spell out emotional arcs, lest viewers become too confused or lost.

For instance, on television, the Discovery Channel's periodic co-productions with the BBC are given rigorous narration from naturalist David Attenborough in other countries (and on American DVDs) but more simplistic voiceovers from celebrities in their American television airings. One needs look no further than Oprah Winfrey's narration for the otherwise impressive Life to see just how much this can hamper a production.

Even when the narration is well done — as it was with Sigourney Weaver's American narration for Planet Earth — it still takes away from the film as a whole, intruding on the wildlife viewers are ostensibly there to see. It's hard to focus on what's happening on screen when a celebrity voice is present, along with all the other associations you may have with that voice. But studios are terrified you might get bored just watching animals living their lives.

The studios need to have more faith in viewers. Animals are fun to look at. It's why we have pets and zoos — to say nothing of cute cat videos. It's why as soon as the camera was invented, photographers started trying to capture images of them in their natural world.

Winged Migration proves that you can create an artistically satisfying nature documentary and still make solid box office. No nature documentary released since March of the Penguins has even come close to its box office in the decade since its release. Isn't it time to unlearn the lessons of that film and do something better?

Monkey Kingdom is playing in theaters throughout the country.

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