Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 June 2005
Issue No. 745
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


Lubna Abdel-Aziz

Call of the wild

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Surprisingly, the most anticipated film of the summer season, following Star Wars is a cartoon feature. Second in production cost only to Star Wars which cost $400 million, Dreamworks spent $250 million on a bunch of animals in search of adventure, away from home. Madagascar is already a bona fide summer blockbuster.

What are four privileged New York zoo animals doing in the midst of the African Jungle? Alex the lion (voice: Ben Stiller) is happy at Central Park Zoo, delighting the crowds every day with his gigantic roar and proud strut, but his best friend, Marty the cocky Zebra (Chris Rock) is restless. He has longed for the "call of the wild" and wishes to experience it. Together they involve Melman the neurotic giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the sassy hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and the four escape from the zoo, ride on a New York subway, sail on a ship that is hijacked to Antarctica by penguins, and end up in the lush vibrant jungle of the island of Madagascar off the coast of Africa. The city animals civilised and spoilt, experience a major culture shock and discover that survival in the wild does not come as easily or as naturally as they thought. "It's a jungle out there" in this strange land, and these four New Yorkers virtually feel like "fish out of water". Critics are raving about the enchanting story, the thrilling adventures, the panoramic landscapes, the humour, the acting, the world of animals that seems to have no limits. With each new production, computer-animated imaging takes the art to a new level.

Once upon a time Disney was sole monarch of the Cartoon Kingdom. Other studios looked on with envy and dreamed of snatching a piece of the "cartoon" pie. Disney producer Jeffrey Katzenberg moved to Dreamworks, and together with boss Stephen Spielberg produced a series of cartoon hits including Antz, Shrek I and II, Shark Tale, and now Madagascar. Disney teamed up with Pixar Studios and gave us Monster's Inc., Finding Nemo, and last season's Oscar-winner The Incredibles. The animated star wars continue bringing computer images to amazing technological standards, and a delighted public reaps the benefits.

The "call of the wild" has been heard and heeded for centuries, sending explorers, hunters, scientists to the dark mysterious continent. Much has been discovered, much remains hidden beneath its wild tropical rain forests and jungles. Filmmakers have not been deaf to Africa's rapturous call. During the last century over 200 films have been about, around, in or out of Africa. At one time Hollywood seemed to have a permanent presence in Africa, leaving its cameras to survey its resplendent wilderness and shed some light on its dark jungles.

The wild and wondrous African shores have seduced man for centuries luring him back to his birthplace, untouched, unspoiled surroundings of his cradle days. The adventures of Tarzan brought African wonders to city streets around the world. Hunters and explorers in Mogambo, King Solomon's Mines, and Snows of Kilimanjaro displayed courage and adventure, amidst virginal and pristine environs. Man's everlasting attraction to the mysterious, the dangerous, the dark and unknown, has sent him hunting for trophies of live animals to adorn zoos or dead ones to adorn domiciles. Africa's panoramic treasures and rich yields were not enough to satisfy the greed within the human heart. Man chose Africa as the setting for the most despicable and ignoble of all his acts, when hunters turned from hunting animals to hunting men. Europe, North and South America and the Caribbean were populated by the slave trade. Black blood was spilled to plant their grains, grow their trees and build their homes. "And much it grieved my heart to think, what man has made of man!" This shameful episode will never be erased from the history of the white man, no matter what he does, in all of time and space, to atone for it.

Africa is the home of early man. There he struggled to stand upright and live peacefully and compatibly, with all of god's other creatures, until civilisation kicked in. Second in size and third in population, the African continent also "walks upright like her lions", proud and unique in the universe. Often called dark and foreboding, Africa blazes on the planet "like a magnificent jewel" amidst its many gigantic mountain peaks, long lazy rivers, gold burning deserts, tranquil and unruffled lakes. "It has its toes well dug into the final ocean of one hemisphere, rising to its full heights in the greying skies of another." Africa houses 846 million, multiracial, religious and ethnic inhabitants, not to mention its unique four-legged ones. More than 800 languages are spoken from Arabic to Afrikaner, from English to Swahili. Its wild life, wild creatures and wild plains, have fascinated scholars for centuries, while its huge wealth in forests and mines of copper, diamonds, gold, platinum, and petroleum, has lured the enterprising. But despite the looting, Africa remains rich, grand and largely undiscovered, a source of admiration and inspiration for all the ages. Many a writer has completely succumbed to its charms, like the legendary Ernest Hemingway who had a true love affair with Africa, and the Danish aristocrat Baroness Karen Blixen whose passion for the African plains was well documented in the book and film Out of Africa. Actor William Holden, seduced by her deepest seas and highest mountains, founded the "Mount Kenya Safari Club", a favourite destination spot for the rich and famous. 

They came and they kept coming, to work, to play, to rob, to exploit, and ended up in awe of the unblemished majesty of the giant continent. Colonial nations came and saw, and conquered. They ravaged and destroyed, they pillaged and plundered.

Located 400 miles east of Africa, Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world. Once a favourite base for European sea pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries, including the famous Billy (William) Kidd, Madagascar has been a fruitful area for anthropological research, tracing the evolution of its dual culture, part Asian, part African.

The first inhabitants of Madagascar were groups of Indonesian origin, who migrated 2000 years ago, settling in the highlands, while African and Arab immigrants settled on the coasts. English and French traders and missionaries from the 16th to the 19th centuries built churches, businesses, and schools. In 1896 the island became a French colony, gaining its independence in 1960. The official languages are Malagasy (Malay and Indonesian) and French. In 1975 its name changed from "The Malagasy Republic" to "Madagascar".

Madagascar is not just another island. Because of its isolation it is occupied by some of the most unusual and rare species of plants and animals on earth. Like the Galapagos, it is home to exotic birds, plants, and wildlife, 80 per cent of which are unique to the country. It is the natural habitat of the various species of lemurs, well-represented in the film. Blessed with incredible virgin vistas, miles of golden beaches, great national parks, Madagascar has everything except tourists. Only 230,000 tourists visited the island in 2004, a considerable increase from the previous year of 160,000, but the figure falls short of making it a viable industry. Most tourists are from France, and most visitors should speak some French. Madagascar hopes by the year 2010 to receive 864,500 tourists, and it may well be possible that this family-pleasing blockbuster will do for tourism on the island what the film Out of Africa did for Kenya.

Despite continuous political turmoil and natural disasters in some of Africa's 55 countries, the "call of the wild" still beckons many of us to its shores, and we respond to her summons, to that primeval call of the Africa within us. This grand terrain, rich and majestic, dangerous and comforting, dark and mysterious - our Africa - harbours more of nature's gifts than the human mind can conceive.

There is always something new out of Africa

Pliny, the Elder

(23 -- 79 AD)

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