There’s something reassuringly familiar about National Geographic’s television specials. Anyone who grew up with them can probably hum the familiar fanfare, or at least do a fair Jacques Cousteau imitation.
As with the magazine, however, it’s a mistake to assume that the predictability in format means a predictability in content. With the budget to comb the Earth’s most exotic locales and the know-how to make the places come to life for armchair explorers, the hourlong programs stand out even in the flood of nature documentaries unleashed by the cable revolution.
Now, after a three-year hiatus, the National Geographic Society (through a new distributor, Columbia Tristar Home Video) has resumed releasing some of its specials for home video.
One of the titles is “Amazon: Land of the Flooded Forest,” a special that first aired in 1990. Rain-forest documentaries are not uncommon in these Ben and Jerry’s days, but this one focuses on an aspect of the Amazon that often gets scant attention in the other shows: For six months of the year, the river floods, and vast tracts of the forest are under as much as 30 feet of water.
An amazing array of river creatures then invade the forest floor, from freshwater dolphins to an eel-like fish known as the water monkey, which can leap several feet out of the water to snatch an insect from an overhanging branch.
There is footage of slow-moving and delightfully bizarre sloths, nominally tree-dwellers, sloth-paddling through the floodwaters. Other denizens of the tree tops are shown as well, including the rare white bald oakari, whose bald head, bright red, is set off by its thick white coat.
The spectacular wildlife footage is not used as an end in itself, as the show illustrates the often complex relationships between the animals, the flood and the forest.
“Crocodiles: Here Be Dragons” is another kind of nature documentary. The 1990 special was released on home video earlier this year and will also be included in a four-tape boxed set, “The Predators,” due to be released Oct. 13.
The program focuses on a single animal, the Nile crocodile, which can grow to more than 16 feet. Predators, although they occupy only a small, specialized niche at the top of the food chain, have always gotten the lion’s share of the air time when it comes to nature documentaries.
Here, it’s easy to see why. The pure visceral impact of watching a one-ton croc take down a 300-pound wildebeest in a surprise attack is hard to ignore, and not for the faint of heart. In a neat twist of irony, the program also shows how crocodile eggs and hatchlings are ravaged by other predators, from monitor lizards to marsh mongooses. Fewer than 10% survive their first year. In this world, it’s eat or be eaten.
The wonderful-as-usual wildlife footage was shot at two locations, at the Grumeti River in Tanzania and near Murchison Falls in northern Uganda.
“Amazon: Land of the Flooded Forest” and “Crocodiles: Here Be Dragons” retail for $19.95 and are also widely available as rentals. The “Predators” boxed set will retail for $79.95.
“Amazon: Land of the Flooded Forest” (1990) . 57 minutes.
“Crocodiles: Here Be Dragons” (1990) . 57 minutes.