on Animal Planet

Pros: Seems to be the product of more talented cast and crew than is normal for this type of program

Cons: Context. It’s all about context.

In 1977, ornithologist (i.e. bird expert) Dr. Timothy Darrow, fellow scientist Dr. Gary Ward and jungle guide Drajat “Reggie” Saputra explored the island of Flores in Indonesia in search of the presumed extinct Flores Scops Owl. All the while, the team conducted research on the local eagle population…but also happened upon something dark and maybe even evil while deep in the jungle. Only Darrow managed to emerge alive, and after the mutilated corpse of Saputra was found in a makeshift grave, Darrow was charged with two counts of murder and accused of cannibalizing the bodies of his friends. Incarcerated in a decrepit Indonesian prison to serve two life sentences after being found guilty, Darrow nevertheless maintained that creatures from the jungle had killed his friends. More than 25 years after the incident, remains of a previously unknown humanoid – , the so-called “Hobbit” – was discovered on Flores island. Presumably, this species co-existed alongside modern man, but only stood around one meter tall when fully grown. Some in the scientific community questioned whether it was possible that living specimens of this species had actually been responsible for the deaths of Saputra and Ward…

“Dr. Timothy Darrow” (center), surrounded by Gary Ward (left) and Reggie Suputra

It sounds like a great story, and it certainly is the stuff that B-horror movies are all about…but the above, blatantly fictional story forms the basis of the yet another faux-documentary presented as the real deal on one of the Discovery Channel Networks. Aired as part of Animal Planet’s 2015 Monster Week, The Cannibal in the Jungle is a made-for-cable mockumentary that follows (fictional) anthropologist Dr. Richard Hoernboeck as he attempts to convince authorities that Darrow was falsely convicted of murder in 1977 – by proving that living specimens of Homo floresiensis were actually to blame for the deaths of Reggie Saputra and Dr. Gary Ward. Coming across as a mixture of investigative report and jungle adventure, Cannibal alternates between flashbacks revealing Darrow’s story straight from the horse’s mouth (his narration is taken from “the only taped interview ever allowed by the Indonesian authorities”) and a sort of documentary made by and from the perspective of Hoernboeck.

Dr. Richard Hoernboeck, who sets out to prove Darrow’s story that “little men of the forest” ate his compatriots

Interviewing Indonesian police officials, American envoys, and even Darrow’s sister, Hoernboeck attempts to piece together Darrow’s story as he believes it actually happened – which is to say, his rendition of the story includes murderous three and a half-foot tall hominids. After gathering “evidence,” Hoernboeck conducts his own expedition into the Indonesian jungle, which produces (wait for it…) ambiguous results. Just when one thinks that this faux-documentary isn’t going to deliver a definitive A-HA moment, Hoernboeck is able to locate Darrow’s original Nagra (i.e. audio recorder) and Super-8 camera, footage from which may exonerate Darrow once and for all.


Flores Island, just below center on this map of Indonesia, is certainly remote – and dangerous

While the context in which it was presented is sketchy (“inspired by actual scientific discovery!”), The Cannibal in the Jungle is probably one of the better made-for-cable mockumentaries, slickly edited to the point that gullible viewers might be convinced that it does in fact portray real events. The acting here is somewhat better than has been seen in similar programs and amazingly, this production actually acknowledges its cast in the credits – quite possibly a first for this genre of television. Ominous music is used to great effect throughout the film, and the program certainly benefits from the fact that many of the action-oriented sequences are filmed in foreboding, seemingly authentic jungles. Since most viewers would have precisely no idea what to expect in these remote, exotic locations, it’s relatively easy for the production to crank up the tension and deliver a few genuinely creepy moments. A scene in which a group of characters awaken from a night’s sleep in the bush to find small, human-like footprints throughout their camp has the potential to give the viewer the chills, and the obligatory pursuit through the jungle scene is also plenty intense.

…so this film may have been “inspired by actual scientific discovery,” but so was Star Wars.  Does anyone think that’s a documentary?

On the other hand, director Simon George probably should have spent some more time studying Jaws because once the FX and CGI team flex their muscles by showing the “hobbits” in plain view, Cannibal starts to lose steam. As Spielberg proved by keeping his shark, a painfully rubber-looking behemoth, offscreen, a viewer’s imagination is capable of coming up with much worse things than even the best FX team can create. When the curtain is pulled back and an audience can gaze upon the shark (or in this case, the “hobbits”), much of the inherent scariness vanishes since the FX don’t ever live up to what a viewer had in his mind. Hell, one moment in Cannibal which finds a whole gang of miniaturized primitive humans acting aggressively towards a pair of scientists is more laughable than frightening (we represent…the Lollipop Guild…), due primarily to the somewhat goofy effects.



I can’t get on George’s case too much though: his film does have some pretty cool moments, but there’s no denying that the script (written by Charlie Foley and Vaiblav Dhatt) owes a little too much to Italian director Ruggero Deodato’s notorious Cannibal Holocaust, a film which was brutally effective at perfecting the “found footage” format. Numerous aspects of Cannibal in the Jungle are pulled straight out of Deodato’s film, and by the time (in the last ten minutes) where Darrow’s original super-8 footage is being screened “FOR THE FIRST TIME ON TELEVISION,” I was yawning in my seat. Granted, the vast majority of the viewers of Animal Planet wouldn’t have (nor want) any part of Cannibal Holocaust – the authentic scenes of animal slaughter would ensure that – but it still struck me as being pretty low that Foley and Dhatt would shamelessly rip-off a pre-existing work, even one that most people wouldn’t be familiar with. To put it simply, Cannibal in the Jungle isn’t as clever as it thinks it is.

Human compared to so-called “hobbit” skull.

Even if it’s not bringing much of anything new to a now well-established formula, at the end of the day, Cannibal in the Jungle is a compelling found footage B-picture, which leads to the inevitable question: what exactly is such a thing doing on the supposedly educational Animal Planet Channel? Ultimately, it’s context that makes this film (and all the other recent fake documentaries) seem, to some degree or another, reprehensible. Throw any of these programs on the Syfy Channel and audiences would be transfixed – situate one on a video store shelf and people would be intrigued – air them alongside legit documentaries while shying away from acknowledging that they are made up and people get infuriated. I fully realize that these types of shows do generate interest in Animal Planet’s programming that probably wouldn’t otherwise exist – in the eyes of the many, learning about the African Savannah or coral reefs just doesn’t have the same appeal that watching the celebrity of the moment skank it up does, for whatever inexplicable reason – but I also do find it a bit irresponsible to present this type of thing to the uninformed public as a “real deal” documentary. On some level though, I’ve got to admit that Cannibal in the Jungle is pretty clever and pretty darn entertaining – I think it would be worthwhile for those who know what they’re getting into.

“…and we wish to welcome you to Munchkin Land…”

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