Hidden Kingdoms (BBC Earth)

dvd hidden-kingdomsThis pint-sized view of the wild has not been shown very often, and certainly not up close and personal, as it appears here.




If animals are cute (and they are) it follows that tiny animals should be extra cute. After all, mammals are wired to want to care for the smaller and sweeter; without such inclinations, mothers would never take care of their offspring. Unfortunately, while the creatures featured in BBC Earth’s Hidden Kingdoms, a DVD collection of three episodes that aired in England last year, are indeed adorable, there is so much CGI in the series (what Hidden Kingdoms calls “the latest technology”), it’s hard to know what is real and what is contrived. As a result, I found myself skeptical of the whole series: Does this really happen, or is it created and exaggerated for our home viewing entertainment?

Sure, if you read the press release (which non-press members cannot) or watch the DVD’s extras (more on those later), you will know that these technological advances also include “extreme low angles, wide angles, special lenses, slow-motion, pitch shifting audio and even ‘blue screen’.” What this means is that Hidden Kingdoms gives viewers a previously unseen ground’s eye view of the smallest residents of deserts, forests, and urban areas, and in that respect it stands above programs that came before it.

dvd hidden-kingdoms_300In the desert, we’re introduced to two adorable little rodents, namely the elephant shrew (known by its African name, sengi) and the grasshopper mouse (known by its spectacular hunting feat, scorpion killing), as well as the interesting but not so photogenic dung beetle. Here, as narrator Stephen Fry tells us, “every enemy is a giant.” He also tells us, when speaking about the dung beetles and the size of the brood (i.e., dung) balls they fashion and roll, “Some are out to attract female company, and for that, the bigger the balls, the better.” How he pulled that off without so much as a giggle is beyond me.

In the forest, we learn that the tree shrew’s ancestors have lived in those very jungles for over 10 million year. Fry also relates that, for the little critters’ body size, their brain is the largest in the world; also, their diminutive size makes their metabolism run super fast, such that they need to eat every two hours.

Sadly, the creatures that inhabit urban Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo do not fare as well as their wooded brethren, despite the fact that, both deserts are jungles are perhaps the most cruel and dangerous nesting grounds for any animal. Until now, I had been remarking to myself that, while no predators of these small mammals had procured food on screen (i.e., killed one of the “main characters” in the program), I appreciated this rosy side of reality; such acts are the reason I mainly stay away from animal documentaries. In the urban jungle, however, we see a macaque lose its life—and in such a nonsensical way that it begs the question of why the documentarians incorporated it into their film. Rather than being felled by a predator—a natural act that can’t be avoided—he was electrocuted trying to cross a power line. We even saw the flies approaching his dead body.

All this is not to say that Hidden Kingdoms does not have its place in nature documentaries, because it does. As I’ve said, this pint-sized view of the wild has not been shown very often, and certainly not up close and personal, as it appears here. I question, however, who the intended audience is. Viewers need to be able to suspend their criticisms in terms of computer-generated scenes and the accompanying, unrealistic “soundtrack” of mice feet, shuffling leaves, and the like. As an adult, or perhaps even someone who clings too much to reality, this is not me. Children seem the next likely target, yet the action and description sometimes move too slowly, as certain scenes drag on far too long. (How many times do we need to see elephant poop fall from the perspective of a ground animal?)

Each episode has its own making-of extra, a 10-minute featurette documenting how the team went about creating it. A handful of other extras abound, including those on compositing the shot, creating the shot, and composing the score, as well as an extended scene of the sengi cleaning itself (!) and how the team went about storyboarding the dung beetles (you know, the ones with the big balls). | Laura Hamlett

Hidden Kingdoms is available on DVD ($24.98) and Blu-ray ($29.98). For more information, visit the BBC Earth website; to purchase, visit BBC Shop.

About Laura Hamlett 467 Articles
Laura Hamlett is the Managing Editor of PLAYBACK:stl. In a past life, she was also a music publicist and band manager. Besides music, books, and other forms of popular culture, she's a fan of the psychology behind true crime and violent criminals. Ask her about mass murder...if you dare.

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