This summer, enjoy an eye-poppingly beautiful, entertaining and dramatized look into the lives of lions, baboons, hyenas and other African animals. You’ll get to know and love — and sometimes cry with and over — the unique personalities of these individual animal characters living (and sometimes dying) amid a breathtakingly colorful backdrop, often with songs punctuating the action.
No, we’re not talking about Disney’s CGI-animated theatrical version of The Lion King. This drama is found in Discovery Channel and BBC’s groundbreaking series Serengeti (premieres Sunday, Aug. 4, at 8pm ET/PT). And there’s no CGI here. The lush scenery and gorgeous animals of Serengeti are all very real in this hybrid natural history film/drama, which is so wholly unique that even its director can’t fully put a label on it.
“I don’t like it to be thought of as a documentary,” Serengeti director and producer John Downer told us. “Because what we tried to do is to jump out of that category. And it is difficult to categorize.”
Downer and his fellow producer, series creator Simon Fuller (American Idol), have indeed jumped out of any discernible category of nature film with Serengeti. Over six stunningly produced episodes, viewers will follow a collection of animals living in this famed ecological region of Tanzania in east Africa during the course of a year.
Thanks to Downer’s and Fuller’s innovative approach, viewers will quickly come to empathize with the individual stories of Kali the lioness, Zalika the hyena or Bakari the baboon, among others, every bit as much as they would Simba and his pals.
Downer is famous for his self-described “subjective” approach to wildlife filmmaking and for technological innovations like those used in his Spy in the Wild films. His ability to surprise viewers with sights and sounds they’ve probably not seen before is in full force in Serengeti, even down to letting viewers hear the breathing of the creatures, which creates an almost startling intimacy.
“My quest is always to get into the animal world,” Downer explained, “to stay in that world and have that feeling of being immersed in a different world to ours. And be so close to them at all times that you can hear them breathe, and you feel you’re just one of them. … It’s a matter of the animals telling their own story.”
Further helping immerse the viewer in that world and enhance emotional investment with the animals, Serengeti’s narration itself — read for the U.S. broadcast by Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o — is more storytelling than description, written and delivered more poetically than scientifically as it relates these creatures’ triumphs and travails. There are also songs, a rarity in a nature film but something Fuller, of course, has been quite familiar with in his previous productions.
“That’s where it really helped to have someone who isn’t stuck in tradition,” Downer offered. “Simon could come and say, ‘You know, it would be great to have songs.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, yeah, it would be great to have songs.’ … He can go there because he’s not coming into it from the traditional natural history culture, where it was seen as a big leap. But actually, it’s not a big leap at all.”