Secrets of the Whales: Is the House of Mouse taking the mickey?

TV review: A visually stunning Disney+ series that improves with the mute button

The ruthless and bloody aspects of nature perhaps do not sit well with Disney, which in Secrets of the Whales insists that oceans are glorious and gorgeous. Photograph: Disney+

The ruthless and bloody aspects of nature perhaps do not sit well with Disney, which in Secrets of the Whales insists that oceans are glorious and gorgeous. Photograph: Disney+

 

Having taken on Netflix, Disney+ is now coming for David Attenborough. That’s one way of looking at Secrets of the Whales (Disney+, from Thursday), a glossy miniseries debuting on the National Geographic strand of the Magic Kingdom’s streaming service and packed with the sort of jaw-dropping aerial shots usually associated with the Attenborough Expanded Universe.

But in the first of four episodes, the directors, Brian Armstrong and Andy Mitchell, also seem to have challenged themselves to portray these mysterious mammals in the most humanlike terms possible. The subject is the orca or killer whale. (Later instalments focus on humpback whales, beluga whales and the narwhal, and sperm whales.) And its narrator, Sigourney Weaver, leaves us in little doubt that we are to think of these huge creatures not as ruthless alpha predators but as custodians of an ancient civilisation.

They have “rich cultures” with “customs” that vary wildly from location to location, she says. “They love deeply, play with joy and mourn their dead. Whales are just like us.”

Secrets of the Whales is visually stunning and could easily be watched with the sound muted . . . Considering the treacly narration, this would arguably be an improvement

This makes it sound as if they’re holding underwater raves or tweeting about Line of Duty when we’re not looking. And it obviously strays close to anthropomorphism, something naturalists are forever warning against. Would David Attenborough tell us orcas communicate in “dialects” or imply that, in addition to swimming around eating seals, they are guardians of traditions stretching back through the generations?

He would not. Attenborough might instead remind us that nature, if beautiful, is ruthless and bloody. And that being born and making your way through the world is not for the faint-hearted. But perhaps that does not sit with Brand Disney, which in the new series, filmed over three years, insists that oceans are glorious and gorgeous and there really aren’t many downsides to being an orca. (We do see one caught in a fishing line in New Zealand, before a member of the camera crew cuts it free.)

Secrets of the Whales is nonetheless visually stunning and could easily be watched with the sound muted. (Considering the treacly narration, this would arguably be an improvement.) Overhead shots of an orca prowling close to shore, hoping to catch a seal, are mesmerising – though you have to wonder why the seals don’t get out of the water rather than gawping at the enormous predator splashing in their direction.

Meanwhile, a sequence in which a mother and daughter orca go on a hunting trip together warms the heart. But that is what you would expect of Disney, which has found a way to insert kindness and cuddles into a milieu traditionally dominated by tooth and claw. It is one of several moments when a cynical viewer may wonder if the House of Mouse is taking the mickey.

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