The year was 1948. The year Jean Negulesco’s Johhny Belinda and John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre tied for “Best Picture” at the Golden Globes. This was also the year that the Walt Disney Company released their first True Life Adventures nature documentary, Seal Island. It was the first in what would be a series of 14 documentary films released from 1948 to 1960.
Interestingly these documentaries were structured in such a way that they told stories, presenting the animals as characters, rather than an objective, factual look at nature, at least according to Elizabeth Leane and Stephanie Pfennigwerth. This is important because since then, there are been a lot of nature documentaries that use a similar structure. One of the most famous documentaries of all time, March of the Penguins, uses this structure to great effect.
March of the Penguins, released in 2005, was directed by Luc Jacquet. It depicts the annual journey made by the emperor penguins of Antarctica from the ocean to their inland breeding grounds, and then the subsequent treks to and from the ocean to gather food for their young.
The language that’s being used here is important. Take note of the use of the way the documentary describes the annual mating ritual as a “journey” or a “quest” that the penguins must go on. Putting an emphasis on these themes of a quest, of a hero on his journey, gives the documentary a narrative structure that the audience can follow pretty easily. Throw in some obstacles for the hero to overcome (like “enemies” such as leopard seals) and some romance (the penguins’ search for a mate) and you’ve got yourself a pretty detailed narrative arc.
By presenting the penguins in this way, the documentary also draws parallels between their behaviour and our own. Going on a journey, falling in love, by emphasising the penguins’ more human characteristics the documentary is attempting to create audience empathy. We are supposed to relate to these animals in human terms, judging them in terms of human character attributes.
This isn’t unnatural behaviour. Given the way that penguins stand, the way they walk with their flippers hanging by their sides similar to the way our arms do, there is something human about them. “Creatures which look so human must behave like humans,” to quote British scientist, Bernard Stonehouse.
As I said earlier, it’s a totally natural thing to do. The practice of assigning human characteristics to non-human things is known as anthropomorphism, and it’s something we humans just naturally tend to do, according to Matthew Hutson’s The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy. However there are potential drawbacks noted by Leane and Pfennigwerth, notably that we tend to only anthropomorphise animals with the “right” human characteristics.
So these documentaries throw in a little flair here and there. They make us empathise with the animals they’re filming, make us care about them. They anthropomorphise the penguins, giving them innately human characteristics and presenting their annual mating ritual as a “quest” or a “rite of passage” for the penguins to come of age. Doing this causes the viewer to connect more with the animals being presented (penguins in the case of March of the Penguins) but can have unintended effects on conservation surrounding the animals presented. Anthropomorphising some animals but not others, can cause us to favour certain animals over others – “cute” animals may be favoured for conservation efforts over “ugly” or “boring” animals. Obviously this isn’t great when it comes to conservation and the protection of species.
Documentaries like Disney’s True Life Adventures series and March of the Penguins obviously aren’t bad documentaries. Spreading information and helping people learn more about the world around them is never a bad thing. However, perhaps a little more thought could be put into the way animals are presented, with some more consideration of the pros and cons of anthropomorphising.