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January 2010

Meerkats the Movie

narrator: Paul Newman

director: James Honeyborne

83 minutes (PG) 2007
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
review by Barbara Davies

Meerkats - The Movie

It's hard to imagine there's anyone who hasn't seen at least one of the meerkat natural history documentaries that have crowded TV schedules in recent years. In spite of their dark side (and those who've watched the documentaries must know they have one) they have legions of adoring fans. Having witnessed the massive box office success of March Of The Penguins, James Honeyborne must have thought bringing a dramatised documentary about adorable meerkats to the big screen was worth a shot. And while he was at it and freed from the constraints of a TV budget, why not ask Paul Newman to narrate? And get The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency author Alexander McCall Smith to put Honeyborne's story into words? The only thing missing was a suitable star. Enter three-week-old pup Kolo and his family, whose burrow is next to the only acacia tree for miles with a dirty great weaver bird nest in it.

Meerkats - The Movie follows Kolo as he learns what to eat and how to behave and struggles to become one of the few fortunate meerkat pups that survive to adulthood. He and his ever-vigilant older brother face venomous cape cobras and martial eagles with hungry chicks to feed, energy-sapping heat and starvation-threatening drought, not to mention wars with rival meerkats. Then Kolo gets lost in the long grass far from home, and faces loneliness and the attentions of bad-tempered honey badgers and lions in search of a convenient, bite-sized snack.

There were times when I couldn't tell which meerkat was Kolo and which wasn't (one meerkat looks like another to me unless they speak funny Russian, have their own website, and bathe in a jacuzzi), so I had to take Paul Newman's husky word for it that we weren't following the exploits of several totally different pups. Meerkat fans will be glad to know that the trademark scenes are here: the family moving as one, erect tails waving behind like samurai battle flags; the meerkat sentinels standing stiffly on their hind legs, paws held against their bodies, nose and ears pricked at first, then gradually drooping as the day's heat becomes overpowering. They're undoubtedly cute when they're fluffy, pint-sized pups (but as they grow older, not so much). And they emit an amusing variety of squeaks and grunts, sometimes sounding uncannily like Marge Simpson!

As I do with all documentaries, I couldn't help wondering where exactly the cameraman was when some sequences were filmed, or how they were achieved. The end credits acknowledge that events are based on carefully observed behaviour" and that some sequences "contain elements of reconstruction." But while make-believe is the stock-in-trade of feature films, during this dramatised documentary awareness of the story's fabrication kept distracting me. Part of me kept worrying that the film crew had created the very perils Kolo is forced to undergo and then hung around to film the result! Especially as there is no disclaimer: 'No meerkats were harmed during the making of this film'.

But does it work? Yes, but only in part... Sarah Class' music, sometimes orchestral, sometimes using African voices, is wonderfully atmospheric, and the scenery and cinematography are quite simply stunning. And the camera angles through which we see the Kalahari's reptiles, animals, and birds can only make one marvel at the courage, patience, and skill of the BBC natural history unit. Paul Newman as narrator also makes a pleasant change from David Attenborough, though it was his final project and he sounds a little slurred and weary at times. But as for taking events from the lives of real wild meerkats and splicing them together to create a sentimental story - give me a straightforward nature documentary any day.



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