Judge Dylan Charles reviews this one any which way he can.
Warning: Bad Hair Days and Food Fights.
After the success of Meerkat Manor, it was only a matter of time before Animal Planet tried their hand at another show following a similar format: animal antics in soap opera setting, that is. And so Orangutan Island was born as camera crews follow a group of orangutans around and film their lives. But the question remains: Does Animal Planet have another original hit on their hands or is this just a lifeless, unoriginal copykat? See what I did there, switching the "c" with a "k" so it's like meerkat? That's komedy gold.
Facts of the Case
Deep in the jungles of Borneo, the solitary orangutan is losing its forest habitat to loggers. It's becoming harder and harder for them to live their nomadic lifestyle. And as a side effect of the logging, more and more orangutan babies are becoming orphaned as their mothers are killed off by either poachers or from loss of food.
Enter Dr. Lone Dröscher-Nielsen and her forestry school that takes in wild orangutan orphans and trains them in the ways of the wild. She shows them how to care for themselves (what to eat, what to avoid, where to sleep) so that eventually they can live free.
The problem is there are precious few places for the orangutans to go. So she takes them to a special island and sets them loose in the hopes that these orangutans can go against their solitary natures and develop their own society.
What follows over the course of 17 episodes is the first year of their lives
in the wild.
What keeps Meerkat Manor and Orangutan Island distinct and separate animals is the fact that they're not really designed for television. Both were born out of research and conservation projects that would have happened regardless of the television crews. They're nothing alike beneath a shallow resemblance. So really, my question in the Opening Statement was just a cheap hook with little factual merit. I apologize.
I was immediately drawn to the show just based on its premise. The idea of teaching a species how to build a society in order to survive seems like such an astonishing idea to me and then watching them go about it was even more so.
The camera people and the narrator do a good job of keeping the viewer informed about what's going on at all times, which is good since it's hard to tell the individual orangutans apart at first. But by the end of the season, I was able to spot a few of the major players on my own. Each orangutan has their own distinctive personality, like Reno's aggressive bullying, Saturnus's clowning around or Jordan's eccentricity, and it doesn't take long to become emotionally involved in their attempts to live free in the wild.
It's difficult to talk about Orangutan Island without comparing it to Meerkat Manor, so I'm not going to even bother. Meerkat Manor is an almost relentlessly cruel and harsh show, which makes sense considering it takes place in the Kalahari Desert. Babies die, characters are torn limb from limb and life is a constant bitter struggle to survive.
Orangutan Island is a gentler, less stressful show. For me anyway. While the orangutans are living out in the wild, they are still under the constant care of Dröscher-Nielsen and her team. It gives the show a friendlier atmosphere. Until Cha-Cha starts pretending a deadly coral snake is a whip. Or when Nadi gets bitten by a deadly pit viper. So there is still an aura of danger and excitement permeating the whole thing, which doesn't really come across with the narration. At times, the narrator is a little too cutesy and cutesy makes me itch. I don't really need the narrator to talk for the animals; it's the kind of thing that provokes eye rolls and groans rather than righteous laughter.
And there's also an annoying level of repetitiveness. It's not enough that they do a recap before each episode, but there are constant flashbacks to previous events throughout the whole thing. While this was probably less of a nuisance while the show was on the air, it becomes a little insulting to have them remind me of something I just watched ten minutes ago and to do so repeatedly. I get it, Chen-Chen lost his eye when he was a baby. It's kind of obvious without being told that.
The location looks equal parts beautiful and deadly. Vivid green jungles; murky, opaque water; neon colored snakes and of course, the bright orange orangutans make for a lively display. There are some color problems with transfer, I'm pretty sure Lone Dröscher-Nielsen is not tinged yellow.
And there are no extras to speak of, short of a small clip with Lone asking for donations for her project, which could help save the lives of many more orangutans and keep the project going for years to come. If you wanted to know more about that, I'm sure you could find that information here: redapes.org.
Orangutan Island is a well-made look at a fascinating project. The idea behind Lone's island is so compelling, that it's a great opportunity for an audience to see the shaping of a community first-hand. It would be interesting to come back in twenty years or so to see what has sprouted from the seed Lone planted on Orangutan Island.
Orangutan Island is not guilty and is treated to a meal of live, wriggling catfish.
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