It looks set to do for meerkats what last year's surprise cinematic hit did for penguins. Following in the path forged by the French box office giant The March of the Penguins, the BBC's Natural History Unit is to make its first full-length movie - on the quirky member of the mongoose family which lives in the Kalahari desert in southern Africa.
BBC Films, whose previous successes include Iris and Billy Elliot, is joining forces with the world-renowned Natural History Unit for the first time on the project. Production gets under way this month.
Billed as "a revealing and entertaining look at one family's daily struggle for survival in the harshest environment on Earth", The Meerkats will be "a highly dramatic and emotional journey to the heart of Africa on the big screen," the BBC said yesterday.
David Thompson, head of BBC Films, said: "This is a tremendously exciting collaboration. The Natural History Unit is the best in the world at what they do and we're really thrilled to be working with them at last. The film has huge emotional appeal and will really travel internationally. It's a great story with a fantastic team behind it and we hope this will be the start of a great partnership for the future."
The charm of the lead characters is not in doubt. When an episode of the BBC's Natural World last year featured the travails of a meerkat mother, one critic observed: "You cannot have too many programmes about meerkats. They have all the charm of the sloth, with just that little bit of extra intelligence and energy needed to get them out of bed in the morning."
And if meerkats prove as engaging as penguins, it should prove a lucrative expansion of the BBC's wildlife programme empire. The March of the Penguins, which recounted the epic story of the life cycle of the emperor penguin, was made for less than £4.5m but grossed $122m (£64m at today's exchange rates) worldwide. The documentary was directed by Luc Jacquet, a French biologist, although it was the Hollywood star Morgan Freeman's voiceover that made it a box office knockout in America and the UK.
The film was claimed by the American religious right as a heartwarming parable about traditional values of monogamy and child-rearing although most audiences merely fell for the Charlie Chaplin-esque comic charm of the birds.
Neil Nightingale, the head of the Natural History Unit, has no doubts that their small African mammal will win audiences, too. Meerkats are "some of the most charismatic of wildlife characters", he said yesterday.
The Natural History Unit has been involved in feature films before but they have come on the back of award-winning series such as Blue Planet and the forthcoming Earth. This is the first time the BBC has been involved in a project conceived as a full-length movie right from the start. The project is being jointly financed with The Weinstein Company, the production business headed by Harvey and Bob Weinstein since they split from Miramax.