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Meerkat Manor: The Story Begins

A re-edited, re-scored, re-narrated -- by Whoopi Goldberg -- and repurposed feature version of the hit Animal Planet series about the industrious little critters contains nothing the show's fans haven't seen.

“Meerkat Manor: The Story Begins,” a re-edited, re-scored, re-narrated — by Whoopi Goldberg — and repurposed feature version of the hit Animal Planet series about the industrious little critters contains nothing the show’s fans haven’t seen, minus the endless commercials that discourage even devoted meerkatophiles. Despite its nonstop commentary, the docu pulls no punches (and extracts no moral) from the unimpeded flow of events comprising the saga of Flower, valiant leader of the Whiskers clan. Well calculated to win new followers to the addictively adorable animals, the pic is nevertheless unlikely to duplicate the unexpected success of “March of the Penguins.”

For the uninitiated, meerkats (aka suricates) are matriarchal lemur-like South African mongeese whose habit of alertly standing on two legs for long periods of time gives them a cuteness that no amount of intra-species warfare can completely dispel.

When not burrowing in the ground for food, procreation or protection, they are wont to bound over the Kalihari desert, long tails raised, in concerted attacks on rival factions, bent on expanding or defending their territory.

Meerkats first came to the attention of the American public through the character of Timon in Disney’s “The Lion King,” which itself gave birth to an animated series co-starring a meerkat before the advent of the live-action, British-produced Animal Planet skein.

Filmmakers Chris Barker and Mike Slee have pared down several seasons of the show, but aside from simplifying the plot (the Whiskers here face only one enemy clan, the Lazuli), the overall story arc — mortality included — remains the same.

The soap opera nature of the show, with its heroes, villains, rejected or accepted suitors, unwanted pregnancies, banishments, inept leaders and perilous adventures, may embellish events, but it never distorts them. Thus the cute, quirky or downright weird names given to the meerkats by the show’s creators have little to do with their destinies, so that a fuzzy little baby named Petal, sister of the film’s heroine, is not immune from slow death by snakebite.

Goldberg’s narration, though a cut above the usual cutesy animal pic voiceover, pales after a while. But the meerkats’ exploits constantly amaze.

In addition to extraordinary coverage of the suricate actors from every angle and focal length, underground cameras deep in the burrows capture birthing rituals as well as ominous digging or slithering invasions by enemies.

Meerkat Manor: The Story Begins

  • Production: A Weinstein Co. release of a Discovery Films/Weinstein Co. presentation of a Discovery Films production in association with Oxford Scientific Films. Produced by Caroline Hawkins. Executive producers, Clare Birks, Carole Tomko, Mick Kaczorowski, Mike Wild. Directed by Chris Barker, Mike Slee.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD-to-35mm), Robin Smith, John Walters; editor, Oral Norrie Ottey; music, Laurent Ferlet. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight), April 30, 2008. Running time: 71 MIN. Narrator: Whoopi Goldberg.