Animal review: sorry celebrities – Attenborough’s still the lion king

Prey for the losers … a scene from Animals.
Prey for the losers … a scene from Animals. Photograph: Netflix

Netflix’s globe-trotting wildlife show boasts stunning visuals and voiceovers from Rebel Wilson, Bryan Cranston and Rashida Jones – but tells us next to nothing about the natural world

Male lions don’t do childcare. They don’t hunt. And yet they get first dibs on the carcasses the lionesses have spent all day chasing across the savannah. True, their manes look magnificent, but only in the sense that Prince Charles looks good in uniform and medals, even though everyone knows a lackey squeezes toothpaste on his toothbrush. 

In the first episode of the Netflix series Animal, we see a panting lioness waiting her turn at the proverbial wildebeest leg, while her lord and master sates himself. Can lionesses roll their eyes? I am sure I caught a hint of ironically raised eyebrow. Why there hasn’t been a #miaowtoo movement is beyond me. Do lionesses even miaow? I am none the wiser after watching this globe-trotting hour of big cats slaughtering other wildlife in various fetching locales.

Despite the use of the latest technology, including gimbals and drones, it is not clear to me what Animal adds to our understanding of the natural world, besides having celebrities do the voiceovers (a mixed blessing, as sometimes the narration is so flat that it feels as if they literally phoned it in). That said, I quite like Rebel Wilson narrating two male koalas brawling over a female in a tree, and dog-loving Bryan Cranston explaining the hunting strategies of canine packs as if we are Jesse Pinkman and he Walter White, meticulously lecturing on how to cook pure meth. David Attenborough needn’t feel his day job is under threat, though. 

As for Rashida Jones, I am very happy to believe any old guff she tells me, but the actor’s opening voiceover is hard to swallow. “Nothing captures our imagination like a big cat,” she tells us. Oh come on, Rashida. Why did those poets bother getting up in the morning? 

We have much to learn from cats, but documentaries such as this prevent us from learning the truth about their existence. Cats do not feel the need to examine their lives, because they know they are worth living, as the philosopher John Gray explains in Feline Philosophy. Even if they could operate TV cameras, cats would never make documentaries about humans. Nor would they make dramas about themselves, because they are too busy living unreflectively. Human pathos, by contrast, is such that we keep examining our own lives, but also keep making TV shows examining other animals’ lives in a self-defeating quest to find the meaning of life. That said, I would be more likely to watch Tiger King 2 if it was made from the tigers’ perspective.

Animal is nothing if not visually arresting. One night in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, we observe a lioness as she leaves her cubs to fend for themselves while she seeks breakfast. Lions have night vision six times better than ours – and the show is virtuosic in simulating what the night world looks like to them. Here, every living thing – hunter, hunted and circling hyenas – seems illuminated from within, like the suspicious glass of milk lit with a lightbulb that Cary Grant carried upstairs with leonine menace to his wife, Joan Fontaine, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. The doomed wildebeest’s eyes are intense beacons of light, but dim as it succumbs to the lioness. Then more pairs of eyes pop up in this black-and-white spectral landscape: a clan of hyenas looking to harass the lioness and cheat her of her prey.

Watching the series, it isn’t so much my imagination that is fired up, however, as my sense of personal inadequacy. As a five-month-old snow leopard cub stalks an ibex on a narrow ledge above a ridiculously terrifying Himalayan precipice, I contemplate my shortcomings. I don’t have a head for heights, nor a tail to act as a counterbalance, still less impossibly cute dappled paws. As for competence in acquiring dinner, I recently lost the will to live when there was an empty space on the supermarket shelf where the oat milk should have been. 

Nothing cheers me up more in this series than the cub waving its paw fatuously at a just-out-of-reach ibex. Cut to the mother, who is monitoring the development of her offspring’s hunting prowess. I don’t know if ibexes who have cheated death can high-five their peers, but probably not. And they don’t make shows about ibexes or wildebeest. Just as history is never written by the losers, so wildlife documentaries rarely give the prey’s perspective. If humans were more compassionate, we would make different documentaries – not so much about the thrill of the kill as the horror.

All Rights Reserved for Stuart Jeffries 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.