Visually stunning but otherwise a mixed picture, Thomas Rees reviews the first episode of the BBC's flagship natural history programme
Billed as 'Pixar meets Life', Hidden Kingdoms is natural history with a difference. It's a documentary of sorts, but one in which smaller creatures, from rhinoceros beetles to marmosets, play the starring roles. The emphasis is on filming at close quarters and seeing the world through the eyes of the programme's diminutive subjects. Sweeping panoramas are few and far between. Prowling lions and elephants have little more than cameo appearances.
In 'Under Open Skies', the first episode in the three-part series, we descend into the scrub of the east African savannah and the hot dust of Arizona's Sonoran Desert. The focus is on the lives of two animals: an elephant shrew, or sengi, and an intrepid grasshopper mouse, an American rodent that breakfasts on scorpions and venomous centipedes.
Filming these creatures in the wild was a challenge and, in order to get the footage they wanted, the team employed techniques more commonly seen in Hollywood. Blue screens are used to combine images shot on separate occasions, allowing the creation of plausible, yet fictional, events. An arsenal of special effects are added and the programme-makers even went so far as to build small enclosures, or 'stages', to secure footage of the animals that would, otherwise, have been impossible.
The result is beautiful to look at. Shots of a sengi fastidiously tidying the network of trails along which it races to escape predators and search for food, are captivating. So too is a slow motion sequence in which a grasshopper mouse appears to narrowly escape the jaws of a rattlesnake. Filmed in forensic detail and from multiple angles, it had me gripped.
But much of this beauty is skin deep and the film-making style often proves a distraction from the wildlife itself. At times it's hard to know just how many of the programme's events have been manufactured. Rather than sitting back and enjoying the spectacle, I found myself questioning the authenticity of everything I saw, looking for continuity errors and snorting at the more ludicrous moments of blue-screening. A scene in which a sengi appears to rest its feet on the leg of a marauding elephant and narrowly avoids being buried under a steaming mound of dung, was a low point.
Comic sound effects and a melodramatic orchestral score don't help matters and nor does the sensationalist and predictable plot. At times it seemed as if every conceivable threat to the species had been crammed into the 50-minute programme.
Add to that narrator Stephen Fry's hammy, cliché saturated script and moments of informative natural history appear as something of an after-thought, elbowed out by low-brow drama.
The continual peril shows no signs of abating in future episodes. Next week we'll be 'following the story of a young tree shrew' on a quest to 'find fruit before hunger gets the better of her'. The week after that? The trials and tribulations of life for 'a young marmoset who has become separated from his group' bid for our attention.
Following the premier of 'Under Open Skies', one bewildered journalist described it as being like a “wildlife soap opera”. The overall impression is less 'Pixar meets Life' and more plain Disney.
'Under Open Skies' aires on BBC One on the 16th of January 2014. Let us know what you think of the BBC's latest wildlife offering in the comments below.