What would you get if you took outtakes from Netflix’s Our Planet (the Jungle episode, to be exact), replaced David Attenborough’s measured narration with Stephen Fry’s more droll commentary, and added in a generous dose of puns? Netflix’s new nature documentary, Dancing with the Birds—which is as fun as it sounds. Earlier this year, in my review of BBC Earth’s Serengeti series, I’d written about a new trend in nature documentaries — a stronger focus on entertainment than on the educational aspect. This is very true of Dancing with the Birds too. But unlike Serengeti, and Dynasties before it, this documentary from the makers of Our Planet is not filled with drama. Humour is the main dish here, and the helping is quite liberal.
At just under an hour, this is a brisk, light-hearted look at the mating rituals of birds, especially those of different species of birds-of-paradise. Set primarily in New Guinea, with a brief detour to South and Central America, the narrative is divided into sections with amusing names like ‘The Swingers’ (birds whose primary dance moves involve swinging on vines), ‘The Pole Dancers’ (those that make a particular tree pole their base and dance on it), ‘The Artists’ (bower birds which build elaborate structures out of twigs), The Teamsters (birds that work in teams to attract mates), and The Greatest Showman (The Carola’s parotia with its elaborate nine-step dance routine). And Fry, in his disarmingly funny narration, bestows charming little nicknames to the birds: a twelve-wired bird-of-paradise becomes TW, a black sicklebill? SB, of course. The Carola’s parotia though gets christened... Bob.
Fry doesn’t stop with the cute nicknames for the birds. Oh, no. He also supplies us with some delectable double entendres too. “He just needs a female on his pole,” he asserts, at one point, when talking about TW. “It may be a cliche, but size matters to a female bowerbird,” he says, at another juncture.
The birds and their dances are, needless to say, stunningly filmed. But what’s dance without the right music? Dancing with the Birds has the perfect soundtrack to go with each bird’s dance. From big band music when the swingers are swinging to the eerie electronic (theremin?) music for the strange contortion and swaying of the black sicklebill. From the funk tune for the Guianan cock-of-the-rock posse to jazzy beats for the lance-tailed manakin dancing duo. The flashy flame bowerbird (the world’s most brightly coloured bird) gets a romantic French tune for its introduction, and later, the soundtrack switches to Latino music featuring castanets when the same guy gets his groove on (dubbed “The matador” by Fry). And Bob, the amazing dancing Carola’s parotia, gets a full rock song complete with vocals (T. Rex’s Cosmic Dancer) for the finale of his virtuoso performance.
Dancing with the Birds is a nature documentary unlike any you might have seen before. It’s entirely delightful from beginning to end and fills you with a pure sort of joy that is much-needed. At a time when humans seem to make less and less sense, in a world that appears to be rushing headlong into destruction, it’s good to take a step back and listen to the song of birds. And yes, watch them dance too. If this should make us want to protect our planet and these lovely creatures, all the better!