out of Five
Running time: 88
Watchable wildlife drama that attempts to do for meerkats what March of the Penguins did for penguins.
What's it all about?
Directed by James Honeyborne, The Meerkats is narrated by Paul Newman and scripted by Alexander McCall Smith, who was brought on at the start of the editing process to fashion a narrative out of the existing meerkat footage. Shot over six months in the Kalahari desert, the story focuses on meerkat pup Kolo, who starts out as a bit of a loner and an outcast but eventually realises the importance of family and responsibility in meerkat society.
The film is essentially a rites of passage story, in which Kolo gets lost in the desert and has a series of terrifying close shaves with an eagle and a King Cobra before bonding with his responsible older brother and finally knuckling down to the business of foraging for food and protecting the more vulnerable members of his family.
There's no denying that meerkats are extraordinarily cute and their close-knit family units lend themselves well to the sort of sentimental anthropomorphism that these films usually indulge in. That said, the film is less mawkish than you might expect – Kolo is the only meerkat who actually gets a name, for example and, unlike March of the Penguins, The Meerkats contains at least one deeply upsetting sequence that might prove too strong for young children.
It goes without saying that the footage is extremely impressive (the film is a co-production between BBC Films and the BBC Natural History Unit), particularly the sequence where the King Cobra chases the meerkat pups through a network of underground tunnels. Similarly, Paul Newman's narration strikes exactly the right authoritative note, although the bit where he exclaims “Kolo!” is unintentionally giggle-inducing.
The film's biggest problem is that, like March of the Penguins, it favours contrived drama over actual facts. This is a shame, because meerkat society is extremely complex and genuinely fascinating, as shown in the 1994 BBC documentary Meerkats United.
The Meerkats is an engaging, beautifully shot wildlife drama with undeniably cute subjects, but you can't help wishing the film had probed a bit deeper into meerkat society.