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Too-casual storytelling weakens intriguing film on animal survival

  • BBC NATURAL HISTORY UNIT
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The latest production from the BBC Natural History Unit is a typically eye-catching, years-in-the- making chronicle of animal life that is tainted by the urge to anthropomorphize. Despite its vague title, "One Life" holds a clear focus across its transcontinental series of short, dramatic segments: the intricate survival behavior displayed by the planet’s cleverer beasts (and one plant).

The film opens by comparing how seals, primates and frogs raise their young, but the most fascinating parts show not cuteness or stamina but tactics. Lammergeiers (elsewhere known as bearded vultures) break open bones to get at the marrow by dropping them from high above the Ethiopian highlands; capuchin monkeys crack open palm nuts with rocks; dolphins kick up undersea mud to flush fish out of the water and into the air. Nature-doc fans will recognize familiar sights too, like elephant calves in peril and fungus-growing ants.

‘ONE LIFE’
Not rated
**
Playing 2 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Wednesday at Kahala 8

Though edited into bite-size segments to cater to short attention spans instead of attempting long-form Attenboroughesque observation, the high-definition filmmaking is skillful without getting too showy: clairvoyant camera angles on zigzag-sprinting elephant shrews, momentous overhead photography of humpback whales, super slow-motion, and heart-stopping long shots of a fox stalking an ibex kid on a cliff.

Having Daniel Craig do the voice-over suits all the life-and-death problem-solving. But the words spoken are distractingly unscientific. These beasts don’t mate and raise offspring; instead, we see a "dedicated single mother," and an ape who after some strung-together reaction shots is deemed "actually a pretty good dad." To one bird, in a phrase that sounds like a politician’s stump speech, "nothing is more important to him than family."

Ennobling, and gently humorous, commentary has long been part of nature documentary, but the continuum of man to beast is casually presented here as axiomatic. That muddies the waters in a documentary that really does complicate what we think birds, mammals and reptiles are capable of.

———

Review by Nicolas Rapold, New York Times

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