March of the Cuddly-Wuddly Documentaries

National Geographic Films is behind
National Geographic Films is behind "Arctic Tale," about a polar bear family. (Paramount Vantage )
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 29, 2007

Call it the "fuzzumentary," this new documentary sub-genre in which creatures of the wild -- think the birds of "Winged Migration," or the emperors of "March of the Penguins" -- are turned into almost-human characters on the big screen. Wildlife footage is combined with an off-screen narrator to concoct a G-rated story of loyalty, survival, family togetherness and other themes designed to draw human empathy.

Forget the fact that some of these critters, particularly the polar bears and walruses in "Arctic Tale," opening Friday, might rip us apart if given half a chance. C'mon, they're so adorable! And when will the stuffed toy versions hit the shelves?

The answer is: probably soon. National Geographic Films, which produced "Arctic Tale" with Paramount Classics, already has plans for an "Arctic Tale" video game, a special week of ecological awareness (in conjunction with Starbucks), and a perfect storm of coverage within National Geographic's vast multimedia platforms, including its magazine and Web site. And there will even be a sweepstakes, according to National Geographic Entertainment's marketing head, William S. Weil, in which the winner travels to the Arctic and (presumably with some stun-gun-packing supervision) frolics with its feral residents.

Judging by the successes of 2005's "March of the Penguins" ($127 million worldwide) and 2001's "Winged Migration" (a fluttery international $32 million), this user-friendly type of documentary in which -- to steal from British filmmaker Peter Greenaway's sneery dismissal of BBC nature documentaries -- nature seems to exist purely for our delectation, seems here to stay.

Just a few miles up the road from National Geographic's downtown headquarters, in fact, Discovery Films is planning to release "Queen of the Kalahari," a quasi-anthropomorphic documentary about meerkats that is the playful prequel to Discovery Channel's "Meerkat Manor," a top-rated show for the network.

A fledgling unit of Discovery Communications, the Silver Spring broadcasting empire, Discovery Films (formed in 2004) has high hopes for "Kalahari" -- produced with Oxford Scientific Films in the United Kingdom -- but will wait to gauge the documentary's theatrical success before producing or acquiring more wildlife fare.

"We have a broader swath than National Geographic," says Discovery Studios President W. Clark Bunting, whose outfit has produced nine documentaries, including "With All Deliberate Speed," about the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and "Grizzly Man," Werner Herzog's film about the late bear activist Timothy Treadwell. As for wildlife documentaries, he adds, "it's not easy to find those projects. It takes a long time to film them. They're filmed under harsh conditions. We don't do these in closed soundstages in Burbank."

National Geographic Films (which started up in 2000) and Discovery Films have reason to be optimistic, according to industry analyst Wade Holden: "There is a compelling argument to be made that documentaries like 'March of the Penguins' that create a dramatic story arc can be successful at the box office." Of the 275 documentaries released from 2002 through 2006, he says, only eight were wildlife documentaries. But their combined gross of $163.1 million was a healthy 26 percent of the $631 million total gross, "showing that it is an important sub-genre."

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Credit Adam Leipzig, president of National Geographic Films, with turning that sub-genre into box office gold -- at least by documentary standards. When he watched the original, French-language version of "Penguins" in 2005, Leipzig immediately saw an opportunity to "reinvent a genre for an audience -- wildlife adventures which document the animals as they actually live, made by the foremost photographers and directors who have committed their lives to exploring these creatures, and made in a way that was entertaining, powerful and emotional."

In collaboration with Warner Independent Pictures, Leipzig snapped up the U.S. distribution rights for $1 million, then retrofitted the documentary for the American market, adding Morgan Freeman's voice-of-God commentary, plus a classical music score. The makeover, which cost a modest $600,000, according to Variety, turned "Penguins" into the second-highest-grossing documentary of all time -- behind Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11."

Now Leipzig has unveiled "Arctic Tale," 15 years in the making, which follows the comings of age of Seela, a walrus pup, and Nanu, a polar bear cub, as global warming threatens to melt the ice from under them. A depressing subtext, for sure. But the movie, co-directed by Sarah Robertson and Adam Ravetch and featuring off-screen commentary from Queen Latifah, out-fuzzes "Penguins" with its paw-licking bears and mustache-twitching walruses. (And there's a kid-pleasing flatulence scene to rival the infamous campfire sequence in "Blazing Saddles.") Judging by the dewy-eyed, sniffly reactions to the movie at a recent screening, the story line will connect with many audience members.

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