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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Animal Movie Stars: Not Always What They Seem

Air Date: Week of

In this summer's shark horror film "Deep Blue Sea," we soon realize that it's computer magic bringing these creatures to life on the big screen. But when making films about real animals, directors sometimes rely on old-fashioned slight of hand. Living On Earth Commentator Sy Montgomery explains. Ms. Montgomery is author of "Nature's Everyday Mysteries."


CURWOOD: Among this summer's movie offerings is a "don't go near the water because a monster shark is eating everyone in sight" thriller called "The Deep Blue Sea." When the original shark thriller, "Jaws," was made back in the 1970s, the monster was mechanical. These days computer magic helps bring such creatures to life on the screen. But when making films about real animals, directors sometimes rely on old-fashioned sleight of hand. Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery explains.

(Jungle bird calls)

MONTGOMERY: Everyone knows that call. It's the call of the jungle. We may not recognize the song of a chickadee, but when it comes to remote rainforests -- that call we know. Except for one thing. This is no jungle monkey. It's the voice of a kookaburra, an Australian kingfisher. A bird of the arid outback exiled on a continent an ocean away from the jungles he's come to symbolize. In Australia, they say the kookaburra's laughing, probably at us. Because so much of what we've learned about wildlife, especially from TV and movies, is wrong.

Take Paramount Pictures' film "Andre," based, we're assured, on a true story. Andre, the orphaned harbor seal, was rescued by good New England folks who raised him almost like a member of the family.

(Singing: "For he's a jolly good fellow, which nobody can deny." A dog barks. Man: "Happy birthday, Andre." Andre barks.)

WOMAN, narrating: After a year we still couldn't convince Andre that he was a seal.

MONTGOMERY: That's because he wasn't a seal. The real Andre was, but the creature playing Andre is twice as big as a harbor seal, has ear flaps instead of ear holes, and has huge front flippers to help him gallop over land, something no harbor seal would ever do. In this movie, Andre the seal is played by a sea lion. Casting a sea lion in the role of Andre, one marine mammologist told me, was like a remake of Moby Dick using a sheep for the whale: it just made no sense to him.

But it made sense to the producers. As it turns out, Hollywood's convenience and not factual accuracy often dictates the way Americans come to understand, or misunderstand, how wildlife looks, sounds, and behaves. Here's why the species switch in "Andre": though seals are just as smart as sea lions, sea lions spend more time out of water. When seals are on land they just flop around on their bellies. And since the film crew and the human actors and the audience were all terrestrial, a real seal's real water tricks just wouldn't cut it.

Similar logistics explain why a South American capuchin monkey manages to bring a deadly African virus in the film "Outbreak."

(Man 1: "Look at her. You asked for a monkey, I got you the monkey." Man 2: "What do you mean look at her?" Man 1: "What do you mean, what do I mean?" Man 2: "I told you a male." Loud sounds in the background. Man 1: "You said -- " Man 2: "I said male." Man 1: "She -- " Man 2: "Customer's already got a female, he wants to breed them." Screams, monkey chitters. Man 1: "It's okay, it's okay...")

MONTGOMERY: Capuchin monkeys are readily available and easily trained. Availability and trainability, not authenticity, explain many casting choices for Hollywood pictures. Alligators, domestic and docile, usually play crocodiles. Iguanas play most lizards. Tigers, native to Asia, often play the big cat role in films set in Africa. That's because adult male lions are very difficult to train. One animal trainer tells me there are only 2 reliable lions at the moment in the business. Though there are plenty of good lionesses, and even more good tigers, he adds.

Such practical matters even affect filmmakers who work hard to stay true to the animals' real stories. But there are ways around leaving viewers with the wrong idea. Consider Universal/Warner Brothers' quandary in their 1988 film "Gorillas in the Mist."

(Film music. Weaver/Fossey: "Just try. Just try, a little, just a little bit. No? It's got lots of vitamins in it...")

MONTGOMERY: In this sequence, Sigourney Weaver, playing primatologist Diane Fossey, holds an orphaned baby gorilla in her arms. The film was shot in Rwanda among real, wild mountain gorillas. But the problem was wild mountain gorilla mothers take a dim view of people holding their babies, and there are no captive gorillas with Hollywood experience. The solution: Central Casting found a young chimp with acting credits and dressed him up in a gorilla suit. Leave it to Hollywood to swing the truth from branch to branch to make us fall in love with an illusion.

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery is author of Nature's Everyday Mysteries.



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