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Narrative-Driven Nature Documentary

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A dramatized story based on the real lives of Africa's most charismatic animals.

The traditional way of doing Nature Documentaries is to present them in a serious, matter-of-fact way. In the 2000s, however, a new form began to emerge.

These newer documentaries lean more on edutainment than previous ones. They dramatize and humanize the animals, often bordering on xenofiction. The main animals will usually be referred to by names and their lives will be told in a dramatic, anthropomorphic manner.

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African animals, and especially Big Cats in general, are the main target of these documentaries due to their popularity, though other species star in them as well. However, these documentaries are quite prone to What Measure Is a Non-Cute?; "ugly" or less easy-to-decipher animals such as reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, and other invertebrates (with the occasional exception of attractive ones like butterflies) rarely get star billing in these types of documentaries. Due to the fact predators are often the focus of the documentaries, Predators Are Mean is usually averted. Scavengers Are Scum, however, is still game (though with scavengers being vicious rivals, rather than outright slimeballs). Overall, though, the works try to show that Predation Is Natural and that animals aren't "bad" just because of their diets.

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Often times these series will refer to families as if they're royalty, such as referring to leaders as "kings" and "queens".

As wild animals have a high infancy mortality rate, at least one youngster will die and if a mother has two children then it's unlikely both will survive. Nature Is Not Nice is a constant theme in these types of documentaries. These documentaries are not not without their critics. Some accuse them of personifying their animal subjects beyond any reasonable degree, and downplaying the harsh reality of the natural world in favor of a sanitized version.


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Examples:

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    Films — Live-Action 
  • Animals Are Beautiful People has a tongue-and-cheek narration and occasionally anthropomorphizes the animals.
  • Eye of the Leopard is a 2006 documentary film from National Geographic framed as a coming-of-age story about a young female leopard named Legedema and told largely through a series of flashbacks related to things she encounters as she goes about her day on a trip to see her mother. It features Jeremy Irons delivering many verbose lines about the relationships between mothers and daughters and the rawness of the African savannah.
  • The Last Lions is a more dramatic take on the genre from National Geographic, released in 2011 and again featuring Jeremy Irons, whose script and performance only doubles down on the dramatic voiceover. (His iconic role as Scar is also heavily invoked.) The film itself focuses on a lone lioness named Ma di Tau who is forced out of her territory in Botswana's Okavango Delta after losing her mate.
  • State of Dogs is a 1998 Mongolian documentary about dogs. It starts with Baasar, a stray dog who is shot by a hunter trying to cull the feral and stray dog population. The documentary revolves around Baasar's desire to reincarnate into a human (which comes from Mongolian legend).
  • The Ur-Example are the True-Life Adventures documentaries produced by Walt Disney during the 1950s. While presenting animals in natural situations and paying lip service to the ruthlessness of "Nature's way", it also wasn't above anthropomorphizing the creatures depicted, often reveling in lighter moments and adding wry commentary. Disney even produced a "True-Life Fantasy", an adaptation of Bambi author Felix Salten's book Perri using nature footage shot especially for it.
  • The ongoing series of films from Disneynature carries many of the tropes from the True Life Adventures series (and is effectively a modern revamp), with most entries to date focusing on the dramatized stories of individual animals and their families, complete with celebrity narration that is often lighter and more playfully written than similar projects like National Geographic or BBC Nature film documentaries. To date, such examples include:
    • Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos (2008)
    • African Cats (2011)
    • Chimpanzee (2012)
    • Bears (2014)
    • Monkey Kingdom (2015)
    • Born in China (2017)
    • Penguins (2019)
    • Dolphin Reef (2020)
    • Elephant (2020)

    Live-Action TV 
  • Big Cat Tales tells the tales of a mother leopard named Bahati, a mother cheetah named Malaika, and the Marsh pride of lions.
  • Planet Earth: Dynasties is a dramatized documentary about families of animals. Each episode (besides the penguin episode) focuses on a specific family, such as the Marsh pride of lions in Lion.
  • Fight for Life: The first episode revolves around a lioness named Nyota as she tries to keep her five-month old son Moja alive without a pride.
  • Game of Lions is a documentary that tells the stories of several adolescent lions as they're driven out of their prides. The lions are described as "kings" looking for their own kingdoms.
  • Meerkat Manor is the Trope Codifier. It's a series showcasing the lives of two groups of meerkats in a Reality TV-esque manner. In its case, it was known that the show uses some Manipulative Editing for narrative reasons. Meerkat Manor uses several different individuals to 'play' the same meerkat.
  • Rise Of The Warrior Apes is a dramatized documentary about the lives of two rival chimpanzee troops.
  • Savage Kingdom takes place in Savute, an arid region of Botswana's Chobe National Park. It's a documentary series about rival animal clans who are at war with each other in a never-ending conflict for survival. The story starts with queen Matsumi and her pride of Marsh lions, but also focuses on African wild dogs, hyenas, and leopards. The different species have their own "kingdoms".
  • Serengeti focuses on one year in the lives of several animals living in the Serengeti. It features both predator and prey animals, which means there aren't any "bad guy" characters.
  • Walking with Dinosaurs:
    • Prehistoric Planet, a Lighter and Softer cut of Walking with Dinosaurs aimed at children, did this. The main series is more traditional.
    • Walking with Dinosaurs is predominantly a traditional documentary (insofar as a series about dinosaurs can be considered such) but even it uses narrative tropes, such as Scavengers Are Scum.
    • The Walking with Dinosaurs movie takes this even further, by giving every dinosaur shown his name and personality.
  • Walking with Beasts: Building upon the success of Walking with Dinosaurs, Beasts had a much tighter narrative focus in each of episodes and clearly defined characters than its predecessor, such as a Smilodon populator called Half-Tooth. Despite this, it still very much acts out as a nature documentary, even going so far as to be Darker and Edgier than Dinosaurs.
  • In a sort of Follow the Leader to Walking with Dinosaurs, Dinosaur Planet is much more story-driven than typical for a dinosaur documentary. The focus animals of every episode are given individual names (like a Velociraptor named White Tip or a juvenile Daspletosaurus named Little Das), while the narrator "humanizes" the dinosaurs through insights into their thoughts and feelings.

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