Credit: Disney
by Luke Gorham Featured Film Streaming Scene

Tiger — Mark Linfield

May 3, 2024

A full quarter century after Earth inaugurated the Disneynature brand — add a year to that if you count The Crimson Wing in 2008, but that release hardly reflects the studio’s true spiritual birth — and the entire project has sadly become one big exercise in redundancy. Anyone familiar with even one of the films released since then, which include audience favorites like African Cats, Chimpanzee, and Penguins, will recognize the Disneynature doc’s basic framework: dialing the typical animal documentary’s penchant for anthropomorphizing — so as to create the necessary emotional stakes for adults and kids alike — up to an 11; establishing the nobility of mom and pop creatures as they lead sacrificial lives consumed by child-rearing and food-scrounging; and employing a Mouse House-influenced narrative shape marked by underdogs and villains. Particularly since African Cats (2011), there has been concerningly little variance to this formula, indicative of either a limited conception of what these works could be or proof of confidence that the muckety-mucks have decided the settled calculus is correct. Is this too harsh a rhetorical position for a project which essentially aspires to foster in children an appreciation of the natural world and our animal brethren? Perhaps so. But in an era where Disneynature’s core viewership consists of Generation Alpha, perpetually in need of touching grass, few favors are done by the homogenous house style, which flattens all potential for complex zoologic, ecologic, and morally philosophic inquiry into… well, cartoon territory. 

This is especially evident in 2024, as Disneynature’s latest effort, Tiger, arrives less than six months after Planet Earth III. The third David Attenborough-guided iteration of the work that established the mold for all nature documentaries to follow and ushered in the present streaming era’s glut of movies rooted in macrocosmic inquiry, PEIII (and II before it) demonstrates a clear and evolving purpose: namely, tethering even a glancing appreciation of nature’s beauty directly to the existential threat of imminent climate collapse. If the liability of this approach is that the BBC program can lapse into didacticism at the expense of a more nuanced image-making project — an ethically defensible artistic sacrifice given the collective global delusion regarding ecologic apocalypse — it’s still preferable to Disneynature’s approach, which essentially amounts to sticking an afterthought Surgeon’s General warning on a pretty package. 

But setting aside such conceptual limitations, it’s still worth wrestling with Tiger on its own, more modest terms. After all, of all the earth’s fauna, tigers are undeniably among the most photogenic; extend that to all biota if you like, and it largely remains true. There’s pleasure and value in the simple pictorial documentation, narratives being as they often are mere shortcuts to and simplifications of more substantial understanding. It’s frustrating then, particularly given Tiger’s verdant Indian jungle setting, that the film’s photography is so uniform and relatively anemic. Given ethical and safety concerns with any production capturing creatures in the wild, much of the footage is obviously subject to certain constraints, but the surfeit of close-ups quickly becomes monotonous; the impression of bright orange set against the forest’s greens and browns is striking for only so long. Clever editing could have went a ways in crafting a more visually accomplished work, but it seems thought was put only in to which shots would best serve the film’s narrative — which, predictably, involves a mother raising four cubs while trying to avoid the alpha male who rules the region — and muster the desired tension. But even in that the film is lacking, with scenes feeling more aggressively stitched together and the storyline more artificially manufactured than in other Disneynature ventures, with component shots of voiceover sequences noticeably disrupted on both temporal and spatial terms. Sure, only the worst of us won’t crack a smile at clumsy cubs somersaulting down a hill, but TV clip shows offer up the same fodder without the laboriousness of filmic demands.

To Tiger’s credit, it does manage a few breathtaking images, some even notionally (if not explicitly) brutal: a shot of two crocodiles flanking a deer struggling to swim to safety, their three heads side by side as if posing for a group photo, is particularly memorable. But any such fleeting moments just as quickly cede ground back to the film’s low-stakes storytelling and oddly jaunty score, perpetual emphasis placed on the foregone happy ending. It risks a didacticism of its own sort to observe the broader irresponsibility of such an approach, and of course, nobody wants young children to be traumatized by images of gut-spilling viscera or the fatalistic rhetoric of a dying world. Watching a nature documentary isn’t going to save or damn the Earth. Still, whether one’s criticisms with Tiger, Disneynature, and all such analogous works stem from artistic or moral deficits, it’s clear that neither imagination nor intellect is being much stimulated, and a fundamental reconceptualization of what the genre can and must be is needed. Only then can we dare dream of a future where grandmas aren’t simping on social media for the fossil fuel industry and dummies don’t believe that wind turbines cause cancer.

DIRECTOR: Mark Linfield;  CAST: Priyanka Chopra Jonas;  DISTRIBUTOR: Disney+;  STREAMING: April 22;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 30 min.