Animals Are Beautiful People

Director: Jamie Uys  

There is a famous saying that goes through my mind every now and then. It's a quotation from the famous English poet John Donne, and it goes, "No man is an island entire of itself / Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." It's a saying that has stayed with me for years since I first heard it. You might not think that at first if you were to take a look at my life. I live in my apartment alone. I do work on my web site, from watch movies to writing reviews of them alone as well. But a look further into my life will find that I am far from living without human contact. I work at a job where I have to interact with customers and fellow workers many times each and every shift. And I do various duties towards the upkeep of my country, like paying my income taxes. I think it goes without saying that you are like me in this way - unless you are a hermit living way deep in the wilderness, you have regular contact with fellow humans. But let's take a look at those few individuals who live deep in the wilderness, or imagine that everyone in the world except you died of a deadly virus. You might think that in those situations, those hermits or your lonely self would soon forget about your fellow man. But you wouldn't - hermits, as well as your alone self would still get reminders on a regular basis of humanity. Let me give you an example. I am sure that you have on occasion looked at something like clouds in the sky or the patterns on a ceiling, and tried to find something that you recognize in these messes and patterns. What, more often than not, do you find in that randomness. That's right - you think you see a face in those clouds or patterns. And I'm sure you have been finding faces in many things around your home ever since you were a small child.

What do you think can be concluded by this odd fact that we see human faces in fields of randomness? I think the conclusion is obvious - we are all born with an instinct to find some kind of humanity in just about anything. Inside all of us, there is the instinct to seek out humanity and interact with it on any level that is possible. While there are some people who manage to mostly suppress this instinct (like those hermits I brought up in the first paragraph), I think it's safe to say that for the majority of us find ourselves seeking to relate to anything we encounter on what we know best - ourselves. It's not just with patterns on the ceiling and other non-living objects - we also try to find humanity with other living things. Animals, to be exact. The most obvious example of this is with the idea of keeping certain kinds of animals in our homes as pets - a practice that other animals do not indulge in, if you don't count the species of ants that keep aphids in their colonies. Just think about the hundreds of pet owners you have encountered personally or in the news. They give their pets human names, consider their pets "one of the family", and do other things with their pets that you would normally associate with human interactions. The more that you think about human interactions with animals, the more interesting things get. For example, think of the fact that the vast majority of baby animals look cute and irresistible to humans. My theory explaining why this is so is that animal babies look so cute is because if we see an abandoned or orphaned animal baby, it is likely we will take care of it or find help for it. Whether this was programmed into us by evolution or some kind of higher power, I don't know, but it's interesting to think about.

Maybe you never thought of those specific things when thinking about animal/human relationships before, but I would bet that you have found some kinds of interesting things in Animals Are Beautiful Peoplevarious interspecies relationships before. In fact, there is an entire movie concerning one filmmaker finding certain traits in animals that the ordinary person might call "human". Of course, that is the movie being reviewed here, Animals Are Beautiful People. The subject matter alone interested me enough to buy the movie when I found it at a local thrift shop, but there was something else interesting about the movie. And that it was written and directed by Jamie Uys, who made the amusing movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. He actually had a somewhat extensive film career, but few of his movies have reached this side of the Atlantic, so I was interested to see if Gods was a fluke or not. This earlier effort of his, unlike Gods, is a documentary. It starts off in the middle of a desert, which at first glance is completely devoid of life except for a few brief shots of some dried-out bushes. Uys subsequently catches some genuinely haunting and beautiful shots of sand being swirled around by the wind. It's here that on the soundtrack we hear the first words from the movie's narrator (Paddy O'Byrne, who later was the narrator in The Gods Must Be Crazy.) "The oldest and driest desert in the world. Fifty thousand square miles of eternally shifting sand. You'd think nobody could make a living here. And yet, when the wind dies down and the dust settles, you see a tiny track, and many more." It's here that we get the first of several shots of various animal tracks that have made an impression on the desert sands.

Personally, I would have liked to have known right from the start exactly which desert we in the audience are seeing. Still, the sight of signs of life in this utter wasteland intrigued me, so I kept watching. The narrator continues: "No matter how harsh and inhospitable a place may be, there's always someone who's willing to live there. A whole community of little creatures have had millions of years to adapt to the impossible conditions of the desert." After a few other shots of various strange tracks in the desert sand, we get the first sight of an actual resident of this desert - a beetle, moving impossibly fast across the sands. Though the narrator tells us that this beetle supposedly has an air cooled cooling system like a Volkswagen Beetle - which is why it runs so fast across the hot desert sands - he somehow neglects to tell just what is the official name of this kind of beetle. However, the movie does give the audience the sound of shrieking tires when the beetle being filmed runs into another, and when the two beetles execute and finish their courtship ritual, we hear the sound of a kiss as the two split and depart.

Subsequently, we see several different kinds of insects (none identified by name) burying themselves in the sand in different ways to escape the heat. Then we move from insect life to reptiles with a look at the gecko (who is identified by the narrator.) We learn that it takes life more leisurely than the beetles it no doubt hunts, and we're told a couple of interesting things about it (like having the ability to lick its eyeballs). A sidewinder snake then makes an entrance, though even its speedy movements can't catch up to the speed of the gecko, though it would be more correct to say that it's actually a bunch of quickly edited shots of a gecko moving in various directions. The movie does compensate for this fabrication by subsequently showing the clever and sneaky way the sidewinder (buried in the sand) gets geckos to come towards it, by sticking out its green tail like a blade of grass to attract ants - which attract geckos. Also, the narrator finally tells us which desert we are actually in (the Namib Desert of southwest Africa.)

Though at this point I wasn't terribly surprised to find out insects and small reptiles live in the Namib Desert, I was surprised to find out much bigger life also inhabits this area. A species of antelope called Oryx (my subsequent research found out they are also known as Gemsboks) lives on the fringes of this desert. Despite not a drop of water or any food in sight, the narrator assures us that they thrive in this wasteland. Indeed, as they prance through the stunning landscape, they look well fed and watered. You might think that the movie would tell us just how they manage to stay alive in this inhospitable area,  but alas, that is not to be - the movie then abruptly moves south to the bordering white Namib desert, "A region of rugged moonscapes and endless vistas," as the narrator tells us. In short order we are given a look at the baboons that live in this desert. In the particular baboon pack the movie focuses on, we learn there is a leader. After that not particularly surprising fact is told, the movie avoids bringing up and answering obvious questions like how the baboons find food and water in this wasteland in order to show us the baboons at play, pulling off cartwheels and other impressive gymnastics.

After about a minute of this gymnastic baboon footage, our look into one of man's closest relatives comes to an abrupt end, and we are next taken to a look at the weaver bird. The narrator explains that trees are in short supply in the white Namib desert, so it's not unusual for hundreds of weaver birds to make a home in the same tree, each with its own nest deep in a great expanse of nest-making material covering the tree. After some footage of various trees taken over by weaver birds, the narrator tells us that sometimes a drop of dew that finds itself hanging on the tree can focus the rays of the sun on the great nest, causing the weavers' home to burst into flames. Sure enough, we see in front of our eyes one of the trees bursting into flames and creating a great inferno. Maybe I'm being cynical, but I find it a great coincidence Uys just happened across this inferno during his travels in the Namib. In fact, I bet that it was his crew that set the gigantic nest on fire. Lucky for him that there's no chapter of the S.P.C.A. in this part of the world.

Before the flames have begun to die down, we move on once again. The narrator explains that the white Namib desert is moving inland, making areas of grassland essential for some kinds of animal life disappear. Still, some kinds of plant life have managed to adapt to the changing environment. The movie introduces us to a plant whose spelling I am not confident with. It sounded like "Styphelia", but the Internet told me those plants with that name are actually found in the Pacific area. Whatever the spelling, the plant in question have evolved over many years to overcome the problem that there are no bees around to pollinate them. Instead of emitting a sweet scent, they emit the smell of rotting meat, which attracts flies. The flies, wandering around the flowers looking for food, pollinate the flowers. The next minute of the movie is devoted to showing what happens to the plant after it's pollinated. Eventually the plant is literally bursting with seeds, and we see multiple seeds being spit out at great speed by the plant. Actually, that's what the movie wants us to think. The "seeds" we are seeing being ejected by the plant are actually crude animations of brown streaks superimposed over an image of the plant.

And yes, I know that the subject matter of this movie is supposed to be animals. Never fear, the movie quickly gets back onto that subject. In quick order we are shown several additional species living in the desert, like the anteater and the warthog. In almost as quick order, the movie spends about a minute on the lions of the desert, though the facts that the narrator tells us about the animals (they don't hunt when their bellies are full, a young male lion will sometimes challenge the leader of the pride) probably won't be much of a surprise to most viewers. It's doubtful it will also be a surprise that the next animal showcased - the hyena - is a scavenger. One hyena is shown hunting, and sets its eyes on a yellow-billed duck with ducklings. The mother duck sees the hyena coming, and we see the clever way it deals with predators. As its ducklings quickly leave the area, the mother duck pretends it is wounded, crying out and rolling around the ground. This gets the attention of the hyena, which starts stalking the mother duck. Once her ducklings are shown to be safely out of the area, the mother duck suddenly makes a great recovery and zips away to her hidden ducklings. Although this segment was interesting, I couldn't help but notice one thing about it. Namely, not once is the mother duck in the same shot as the hyena. Obviously, this great crisis was manufactured in the editing room.

There is more - a lot more. While some of you might think that a significant amount of the movie has passed by this point, the clues I've planted above say otherwise. After the hyena segment has passed, less than twenty minutes of the movie has gone by - there's still well over an hour to run. And in the remaining running time of the movie, some of the problems I have previously discussed rear their heads again. Animal life is manipulated by the filmmakers (when there's supposedly a flood when the movie moves to the Kalahari desert, hedgehogs and baboons were obviously thrown in), the illusion of one animal hunting another is again accomplished in the editing room, the extremely brief time devoted to every showcased animal continues, and there are "comic" sound effects dubbed in here and there. But there are further flaws to be found in Animals Are Beautiful People. Some of the other problems include supposed humorous comments by the narrator (which aren't very funny), or the movie getting off topic by devoting time to the Bushmen in the Kalahari. And while the movie promises to show us how a number of animals engage in human-like behavior, surprisingly there isn't that much of that showcased here.

Yet, despite these and other problems, I must confess that I found Animals Are Beautiful People to be a pretty compelling documentary. Some of the problems actually in the end are made into lemonade from lemons. For example, take the brief time the movie devotes to every showcased animal. We might not learn much about every animal, but on the other hand we are shown a great variety of animal life. And the quick jumping from one animal to another does prevent the movie from ever getting boring - there's not one slow or draggy moment to be found here. Another strength of the movie is that despite the quick pace, we still get to learn a lot about animal life in this part of the world. Some of the footage is genuinely fascinating, like the fish that swallows its young when a predator comes by. Some footage generates genuine emotion, like the sight of hundreds of baby pelicans seen dying off because they can't fly away when their once-wet environment dries up. Some other sequences may not be informative, but they manage to impress all the same by posssessing other strengths, like being stunning to the eye. No, Animals Are Beautiful People is not the best made or best informative documentary made, but if you are in the mood for disposable entertainment that manages to educate to some degree, it will do nicely.

(Posted March 6, 2014)

UPDATE: Reader "The Rev." informed me that the plant whose name puzzled me is actually called Stapelia. Many thanks, Rev.!

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See also: The Golden Seal, Missing Link, White Wolves