Tarka the Otter
(Nature Series: On the Tracks, 1985)

One of the little sickeningly-cute things that my boyfriend and his friends do is to give everyone they know an animal alter-ego. I'm a sea lion, for instance. My boyfriend is an otter. As a result, birthdays and Christmases are often filled with little plastic things or stuffed animals that follow that "totem animal" theme. As a result, we're always on the lookout for movies about our animals. Tarka the Otter, one of the Nature Series videos, just happened to be available one day, and we nabbed it.

By the end of the film, I wanted to keep it, pay the video store fee, and burn it so nobody else would have to see it. It's that bad.

This is not a nature video. This is not what it says on the box. This is nothing more than a shock film -- an otter snuff film. Every single otter that's given a name, and a few that aren't, are killed, sometimes violently and sometimes on camera. There are literally scenes of a dead otter hanging from her feet with blood dripping off her nose. If, on the box, it had said, Faces of Death XVII: Otter Death, I would have been prepared. As it was, it left me feeling disgusted and sick.

Granted, this was probably the purpose of the film. I believe, optimistically, that the reason the directors chose to make this film was to educate people about the heinous treatment of otters in England, when otter hunting was still legal. I am trying to believe that it's a good thing that this is out there to raise awareness.

However, it's given a strange sort of glory in this film. The humans are all trying to kill Tarka, and the effect comes off like a bad video game or a slasher flick. It just doesn't work. If you dumped a vat of pig's blood on road kill, it would have the same cinematic value.

There really is no plot. It's supposed to be about a river otter, Tarka. It follows Tarka from birth, showing him as a pup, to his death at the hand of a particularly nasty hunting dog. In between, Tarka leaves the nest, hunts for food, rests overwinter, falls in love and has pups of his own. It almost sounds sweet and pastoral. It's not.

The problem is, like I said above, there's too much death. Tarka's father is killed in the first ten minutes. His mother dies while Tarka looks on, with several close-up camera shots of dead hanging otters including Tarka's mother. Tarka himself is killed in the end, though the directors' idea of "justice" was to have Tarka kill the attacking dog as well.

It's a valued plot device when it's a duel in a dramatic film. It's disgusting when it's an overmoralizing children's film. (Ironically, the film is based on Henry Williamson's award-winning children's book of the same name, first published in 1927.)

Sadly, the box makes it appear that this movie is intended for children. Although I'm aware that children are much more resilient than we give them credit for, I can't imagine a child watching this and not being traumatized. (If they aren't, I'd fear for that child.) All the humans portrayed are bad. All the plot threads are about people trying to kill otters. Most of them succeed. It's just not a movie that parents should want a young child to watch.

Worse, if this movie is for adults, it takes on a pitiful quality. The narration is in "dumbed-down" prose, presumably to be understood by children. There is no plot, per se. In fact, I've seen Harlequin romance novels with more intellectual validity.

Although they are few and far between, the movie does have a few redeeming minutes. The otter photography, both in the nest and in the water, is amazing, Discovery Channel-type of stuff. If you can avoid the bloody death scenes, the playing and mating and swimming scenes would make a good compilation picture.

Tarka the Otter should probably have been called Tarka Runs For His Life. Though nature is often cruel, this film takes cruelty to a new level -- and I note that the end had none of the traditional "no animals were harmed during the making of this film" disclaimers, meaning that the otter deaths were real.

Intended to be a nature film to educate the common man on the plight of the endangered otter, Tarka comes across as a fiasco of blood and bad narration, and should probably be avoided at all costs. Luckily, I believe it's out of print now.

For good reason, too.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]
Rambles: 16 October 2001