Meerkat Manor Review
I was going to say that this anthropomorphism - the casting of human characteristics and qualities to nonhuman beings, including animals - has its limits. There is a suspicion that certain creatures, in their place at the more unpleasant end of the animal kingdom, would never be cast with names, human characteristics and a soap opera setting. I thought perhaps but, with Barnyard, they've walked on two legs, clinked bottles of milk in a bar and had both sexes sporting udders. Wasps? Stingo in Fifi And The Flowertops! Evil spiders? Spiderus in Miss Spider's Sunny Patch? Dung beetles? Oddly, given how unpopular they are, they feature here, cleaning out the meerkats' burrows and, in one of those evolutionary twists, being so toxic as to be left alone by their hosts, the meerkats.
Were it not for Meerkats United, meerkats might still be living peacefully in the Kalahari desert without being bothered very much by movie and television cameras. Long snouts, sharp teeth, fur and claws, so very much like the members of the mongoose family that they are, but when they stood on two legs when guarding their territories with their front legs folded in front of their bellies, we saw something of ourselves in them. The David Attenborough narration helped no end. Only Johnny Morris would have made the animals more human by his clowning around in a zookeeper's uniform and voicing their responses. But a David Attenborough is what accompanied our viewing of their family units and their popping up and down on lookout. Add in Timon from The Lion King and that journey to anthropomorphism was almost complete. All that they needed to make it complete was a soap opera. That's where Meerkat Manor comes in.
From the moment the case is opened, you're confronted with a series of vignettes that's rather forced. "Shakespeare fights for his life after a vicious snakebite from a puff adder!" "Youssarian attempts an ambitious burrow move but things quickly spiral out of control!" "Tosca is on sentry duty scanning the area for predators!" All that it's missing is Ian Beale opening up a corner shop, takeaway or brothel somewhere nearby but with a mention of toxic dung beetles, it gets close enough for one to let such an omission by. Meerkat Manor comes courtesy of Kalahari Meerkat Project, which is a scientific study of the creatures and their breeding run and documented by Oxford Scientific Films and the joint cooperation of the Mammal Research Institute at the University of Pretoria and the Large Animal Research Group from Cambridge University. Rather than present this as is to an audience of no more than eighteen, Animal Planet have dressed this up as a drama series featuring the Whiskers family, one that is led by dominant male and female Zaphod and his mate/wife Flower, their children (including Tosca, Daisy, Attila, Mitch and Shakespeare) and Zaphod's brother Youssarian.
Warmly narrated by Bill Nighy (in the UK, other actors were used in other countries where this was shown), Meerkat Manor is a soap opera with a difference. Puff adders have rarely made an appearance in Eastenders or Coronation Street. They may have done in A Country Practice but they certainly do so here, giving Meerkat Manor a rather thrilling opening as a kidnapping and rescue attempt ends with the Whiskers attempting to evict such a snake from their burrow. In its bid to create characters, it fares well with Shakespeare, who first rescues his brother Mitch from the kidnapping by a gang led by their sister Kinkajou before being bitten twice by the snake, once on the thigh and also on the neck.
As the opening episode of a soap opera goes, it's very much better than Arthur Fowler and Den Watts discovering a dead body in a downstairs flat or Damon Grant saying bloody 'ell in Brookside. But then Meerkat Manor is a fairly unique soap opera and face a string of unique problems throughout this series. With this injuries, we follow Shakespeare as he struggles to get better, Zaphod and Flower's family battle their rivals, the Lazuli while their children, in a twist that would be familiar from Romeo And Juliet, fall for members of rival families. Later in the series, there are the staples of family life - births, deaths and, well, marriages - a sheltering through a storm, a house move and a falling out in the family.
All of this is presented well but one can never look past the fact that we're watching meerkats and that we're portraying them as we would a human family. Yes, there is something to be drawn in the comparison, with animals not being as ruthless as you might think, but there are moments when the narration draws to much of a link - an unsuitable link - to a family of people. The meerkats don't mourn as we do and gather to work as a unit when defending their territory or moving to another but don't quite bond as would a human family. That's all the more obvious when watching Meerkat Manor, which is very much at the lighter end of natural history. One doesn't doubt that this makes it much cuter than it would otherwise be and with the meerkats being very cute indeed, this is a show that offers less of the science and more of a happy family of creatures getting by in the Kalahari.
Meerkat Manor features thirteen episodes, each of which lasts for less than twenty-five minutes, which are spread out over four discs. Without any extras, the potential amount of storage is barely touched by what has actually been used but that doesn't result in a particularly impressive-looking release. Anamorphically presented in 1.78:1, all of these episodes are reasonably sharp and offer a sufficient, if not excessive, amount of detail. Then again, given the nature of the film, how the crew had to remain at a distance from the meerkats and were forced to work with equipment that, as seen here, look to be a near relative of security cameras and in-burrow fibre-optic systems, it was never going to look stunning. However, it is a very slight improvement over how Meerkat Manor was broadcast on television, with few visible faults in the picture.
The DD2.0 audio track is fine but there's little to it other than the Bill Nighy narration. Everything sounds clear , concise and with few obvious problems. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles, which is no loss as regards the noises made by the meerkats but is something of a disappointment when listening to the Bill Nighy commentary.
There are no extras on this DVD release.