Wildlife films: Flights of fancy

Feature-length wildlife films are taking off on the big screen, but this soaring success isn't a result of the usual formula of pretty pictures and earnest commentary. The secret is storytelling, says James Mottram

The environment might be in danger and our ecosystems under threat, but right now wildlife films are flourishing. Gone are the days when taking in a bit of Mother Nature meant sitting at home on a Sunday evening, tuning into BBC1 and watching David Attenborough crawl through the undergrowth to sit with silver-backed mountain gorillas. Even the proliferation of dedicated satellite channels, such as Discovery and National Geographic, is old news. In the next two months, three very different wildlife films are set to hit the cinemas, all with high hopes of luring audiences away from their living rooms to experience the natural world on the big screen.

The first of these is The Crimson Wing, a lyrical study of flamingos living on Lake Natron in Northern Tanzania, directed by the British-born filmmakers Matthew Aeberhard and Leander Ward. "We always wanted it to be a big screen film," says Aeberhard. "You could spend an enormous amount of time developing a project for television, so why not develop one for the big screen? We wanted it to be a project that people could experience in a way you can't experience on a small television. We felt nature deserves more than that. It's something intrinsically beautiful and the big screen supports that. It helps give one the feeling that they could be there."

Indeed, if anything suggests how nature films are changing for a new generation, it's that Aeberhard and Ward decided to use Mariella Frostrup's raspy vocal patterns to narrate their film. "The trouble we found with all the temporary narrators [we tried] is that they sounded like David Attenborough!" laughs Aeberhard. "We love David Attenborough, don't get me wrong. But that's not what we wanted. We wanted to break away from that association because we're trying to tell more of a story than a standard wildlife film."

Watch a trailer for 'The Crimson Wing'

Aeberhard and Ward are backed in their ambitions by the might of Walt Disney. The Crimson Wing is the first film commissioned under the aegis of Disneynature, a newly formed company designed to release "high quality wildlife feature films in theatres", according to its executive vice-president, Jean-François Camilleri. The company was formed after Disney CEO Robert Iger saw the BBC's Planet Earth series in the States and decided to start the studio's own specialist nature division. Earlier this April, the first release in the US was Earth, a feature-length version of the Planet Earth series, which opened in the UK in 2007.

Over the next five years, Disneynature will be releasing one film a year. Following The Crimson Wing, the sub-aquatic adventure Oceans will be unveiled next April. Then, in 2011 comes Naked Beauty. "It's about the job that pollinators – bees, hummingbirds, bats, butterflies – do to help flowers produce and create what we need to survive," says Camilleri. "Einstein said that if bees disappear from the surface of the Earth, then we have four years to live." Then comes African Cats, currently being shot in Kenya, and in 2013, Earth co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield will present Chimpanzee.

For this proliferation of wildlife films, you can blame the penguins. When French-produced March of the Penguins was released in the US in 2005, it took a staggering $77m (£46.4m) at the box office (with another $49m around the rest of the world), as well as the Oscar for best documentary feature. "March of the Penguins made things possible because other people saw they could make money out of it," says Aeberhard. "It became a viable thing." While he denies the film was a direct influence on The Crimson Wing, the fact the French were ahead of the curve was motivating. "Britain is a key centre of wildlife programming," he says, "so it always struck us as unusual that this wasn't being done by British filmmakers."

Indeed, the French can be seen as responsible for kickstarting the whole phenomenon. As far back as 1988, Jean-Jacques Annaud's feature film The Bear enchanted audiences. Though not a wildlife documentary, its story of a bear cub trying to avoid human hunters drew in 10 million admissions in France alone. Then came Microcosmos (1996), a close-up documentary of insect life in our own backyards, from Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou. Produced by Jacques Perrin, he followed it with Winged Migration in 2001, a study of birds with flight footage so stunning it began with the disclaimer that no special effects were used.

Yet it was March of the Penguins that proved enormous profits were possible. The story of the yearly life cycle of the feathery critters, when it was picked up for a US release, its quirky electronic music was re-scored and Morgan Freeman was brought in to provide a silky voiceover. "I think March of the Penguins was so successful in the US that people discovered something," says Camilleri. "People always wanted to see those types of images and stories. Everybody has a strong link with nature. And all of a sudden, seeing those types of things makes people happy. And I think what we are seeing with digital projection... it makes the experience of watching those types of films – which need very high quality images and sound – very good indeed. It's much better than it was before."

Certainly, better equipment in cinemas must account for one of the reasons why audiences are leaving the comfort of their armchairs to immerse themselves in the natural world. But there are other reasons. "I think we're living in a world where those types of subjects are much more important than they could've been 20 years ago," says Camilleri. With environmental issues much more prevalent now, thanks in part to eco-documentaries like Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, it seems audiences are much more willing to learn about our endangered planet. That said, Camilleri is keen to impress that Disneynature is primarily an entertainment company. "The goal is not to preach, to tell people what to do or not to do, but to tell stories that nature invented."

Still, as two movies due for release in October show, other filmmakers are capitalising on this increased thirst for socially aware nature films. First up is Vanishing of the Bees, directed by George Langworthy and Maryam Henein. The film takes a piercing look at a subject that has already hit the news this year – the disappearance of the honeybee due to the mysterious phenomenon known as "colony collapse disorder". This is not just about honey disappearing. With 90 food crops dependent on bees for pollination, as Dennis vanEngelsdorp, from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, says: "If we want a diet that is more than gruel, we need insect pollinators."

Later in the month comes The Cove, an exposé on what goes on off the coast of Taiji, Japan, where fishermen engage in a brutal hunt for dolphins. Directed by Louie Psihoyos, the lead, as it were, is former dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry. Back in the 1960s, he captured and trained five dolphins to play the title character in the hit television show Flipper, but since underwent a change of heart and now rallies against theme parks such as Sea World for exploiting these mammals. Here, he leads a team of underwater photographers and marine experts to capture covert footage on what is happening in the cove, a barbed wire-fenced area where sonar is used to lure dolphins to their deaths.

With cameras hidden in rocks, the film comes on like an Ocean's Eleven-style adventure rather than a po-faced nature documentary. According to The Crimson Wing's Aeberhard, it's this approach that is needed to get audiences watching nature films in theatres. "I think we were a little bit frustrated with the conventions of the television wildlife industry," he admits. "There are strict, rigid formats. There was a certain freedom in making our film that you wouldn't get with television. I'm a naturalist. I'm really interested in wildlife. But I find myself getting quite bored with television wildlife programmes. It's a limiting format. Big screen productions give one a little more artistic leeway." As he puts it, these films give more room to "tell more personal stories. Stories that aren't so much about biology, science or information". Indeed, if one thing links many of the filmmakers involved in these projects, it's artistry. "They are not just scientists doing a film," says Camilleri. "They are artistic talents." Nor is it just about shooting the natural world for the sake of capturing some Oscar-worthy cinematography. "Stories are what's important," he continues. "It's not just about animals – it could be about mountains, it could about trees, it could be about forests, it could be about winds, it could be about snow." Don't be surprised if this is Disneynature's slate for the next decade.

'The Crimson Wing' opens on 25 September; 'Vanishing of the Bees' is released on 9 October; 'The Cove' opens on 23 October. Watch a trailer for 'Crimson Wing' and enter our competition to win a year's free electricity at independent.co.uk/film .