Nature Films


While animal programming boomed on TV, nonfiction nature ventures in theatrical distribution remained scant, with the exception of an emerging specialty market. In the 1970s, the IMAX Corporation had introduced a new 70mm cinema format; theaters capable of screening the towering image were installed mainly in natural history and science museums. Both format and context proved particularly friendly to sweeping land- and seascapes. Accordingly, many IMAX films have featured nature subjects, such as Beavers (1988), Blue Planet (1990), Everest (1996), Island of the Sharks (1999), Jane Goodall's Wild Chimpanzees (2002), and the 3-D Bugs! (2003). Occasionally the format has turned to computer-generated imagery and dramatic storylines, as in T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous (1998) and China: The Panda Adventure (2001).

Once animal TV proliferated and nature subjects found new outlets in large-format cinema, filmmakers with careers in other genres began straying into nature productions. For example, the French-German television network Arte premiered Impressionen unter Wasser ( Impressions of the Deep ) by Leni Riefenstahl

Bart the Bear (right) and York the Bear starred in Jean-Jacques Annaud's The Bear (1988).

(1902–2003), director of Nazi propaganda films including Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938), as part of a celebration of Riefenstahl's hundredth birthday in 2002. After waterbound dramatic features such as the aquatic sci-fi flop The Abyss (1989) and the stunning success of Titanic (1997), James Cameron (b. 1954) began to experiment with documentary and undersea projects in the IMAX format, eventually directing Aliens of the Deep (2005). Others borrowed nature filmmaking techniques and aesthetics for animal-centered dramas. L'Ours ( The Bear , 1988), by the eclectic French director Jean-Jacques Annaud (b. 1943), employed Bart the Bear, who also appears in Legends of the Fall (1994) and a dozen other films, as an adult male who adopts an orphaned cub. Entirely a fiction, The Bear contains many features derived from classic Disneyana: as in Bambi , the animal protagonist's mother is killed, while the surrogate father and the cub evade hunters; the coming-of-age narrative also echoes elements of the True-Life Adventures. Annaud's second dramatic wildlife feature, Deux frères ( Two Brothers , 2004), features an equally unlikely tale of twin tiger cubs, separated upon their mother's death, abused in captivity, then reunited and returned to the wild.

Few late twentieth- and early twenty-first century nonfiction feature films enjoyed theatrical releases: Microcosmos (1996), a lush exploration of insect life produced by the French actor Jacques Perrin, was distributed by Miramax in the United States to disappointing earnings of $1.4 million. Discovery briefly tried its hand with The Leopard Son (1996), filmed by the Baron Hugo van Lawick, which opened even more modestly and was quickly recast as a Discovery Channel special and home video title. Still, nature filmmakers continued to brave the theatrical market. Le Peuple migrateur ( Winged Migration , 2002), produced and directed by Perrin and released by Sony, earned $10 million in the United States. The film, containing footage obtained from inventive aerial camera units, and sometimes using imprinted geese, ducks, cranes, and storks hand-raised for use in the film, suggested that significant audiences could still be drawn to theaters around especially spectacular nature projects. Miramax timidly edged the BBC Natural History Unit's Deep Blue (2005), a less impressive follow-up to the Blue Planet series by veteran Alastair Fothergill, into theaters, while La Marche de l'empereur ( March of the Penguins ), directed by Luc Jacquet for Bonne Pioche, was released in the United States by Warner Independent and National Geographic films in 2005 to wide acclaim. March , said to have been made for $2 million, earned $70 million in the United States within three months, was awarded an Academy Award ® in 2006, and became a best-seller as a home video release. Despite these exceptional theatrical releases, nature remains in the twenty-first century a predominately televisual genre.

SEE ALSO Animal Actors ; Documentary ; Walt Disney Company

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Cynthia Chris

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