The Adventures Of White Tuft


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

The Adventures Of White Tuft
"Even the footage itself appears to have been both stage-managed in the field and manipulated through editing to suggest a story that would never occur in nature." | Photo: UniFrance

There are (at least) two ways of viewing nature, and they are conveniently, if starkly, summarised in Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man (2005). The first of these perspectives is adopted by the subject of Herzog's documentary, Timothy Treadwell, who regards Canada's ursine and vulpine wildlife as his furry friends, partners and equals in an adventurer's playground. The second perspective, rightly championed in the narration of Herzog himself and tragically borne out by Treadwell's and his girlfriend's fate, is of nature as a harsh, hostile and deadly force that allows little room for such human sentiment.

Though also set in Canada, The Adventures Of White Tuft is a million miles from Herzog, although the Treadwell approach to fauna is never far away. Like March Of The Penguins (2005) and Arctic Tale (2007), it blends spectacular wildlife footage with a sentimentalising, storybook narration that is rife with pathetic fallacy – as though the beavers, lynxes, bears, wolves and otters that it documents are somehow just like you and me, only hairier.

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Not only are the main 'characters' here given descriptive names (White Tuft, Little Lynx, Black Wolf, Old Beaver, etc), but they are also invested by the voice-over with thoughts, feelings, desires and even dreams that are entirely human. "'Ah," thought Tuft...". "White Tuft and his sister are more than siblings – they are true friends." "No, the skunk has nothing to say either." "At last, Mother Beaver has found her son – but there's no time for emotion." What exactly do such words (spoken in beguiling tones by Colm Feore) mean in the context of irrational, non-verbal beasts whose conduct is ruled entirely by genetic programming?

If such anthropocentric commentary sits oddly with shots of real animals, even the footage itself appears to have been both stage-managed in the field and manipulated through editing to suggest a story that would never (indeed, could never) occur in nature – complete with a too-cute-to-be-true soundtrack of chirps, mews and coos for the beavers. In one scene we see young White Tuft felling a tree (his first, we are told) to rescue an older beaver who is trapped at the bottom of a rocky cliff. In another, after an absence of many days he arrives just in time to save his mother from the burning log underneath which she has become trapped. And it all ends cosily with "a new family surrounded by all their friends" (these friends include, rather alarmingly, a lynx and a bear, which are normally natural predators to beavers). It might as well have been entitled The Dam United.

All this might sound unfair. The Adventures Of White Tuft is, after all, a family film, only one or two steps removed from, say, the puppetry of Tales Of The Riverbank (2008) or the all-human costumery of The Wind In The Willows (2006) – but those steps are significant ones. If Philippe Calderon's feature were animation rather than a live-action 'documentary', its fanciful elements would be more acceptable – but as things are, to some the film will seem a transgression too far, as though we humans, having encroached upon virtually every natural environment, must now also insert ourselves into the very representation of those habitats' wildlife.

Presenting the 'adventures' of this beaver family as a series of carefully observed behaviours rather than as a dramatic narrative modelled, preposterously, on human experience would have been more honest, and altogether less patronising, to the young audience at whom this film is evidently targeted. Director Philippe Calderon pulled off a similar trick in The Besieged Fortress (2006), filtering the conflict between a colony of termites and an invading army of driver ants through all the clichés of a war movie. Here, in his second feature, there is no faulting the wonderful outdoor scenery and probing animal close-ups Calderon has managed to capture – but do we really want to be rearing another generation of naïve Treadwells who imagine that predation is somehow alien to nature's harmony?

Reviewed on: 06 Apr 2009
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Family film about the life of a beaver clan.
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Director: Philippe Calderon

Writer: Hassina Belkacem, Guillaume Vincent, Marthe Pelletier

Starring: Narrated by Colm Feore

Year: 2008

Runtime: 74 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: France


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