My Octopus Teacher is a victim of its own success. A crowd-pleasing hit on Netflix, it has been compared to March of the Penguins. People love an animal documentary, even more so when the animal makes a connection with a human being. After watching Pippa Ehrlich's film, you may find it manipulative, lacking real depth, until it slowly starts to grow on you. It has a bit of magic in it.
Written by M.N. Miller
Ehrlich asks her audience to believe filmmaker Craig Foster has watched the same eight-armed mollusk for over a year. Foster befriends a wild common octopus in a South African underwater kelp forest. He studies it and slowly has us believing this young octopus is teaching him how to live its life. We learn how it hunts, the predators it hides from, and it even goes in for a cuddle or two.
You see, it’s not Foster teaching his new friend, it’s his new friend that is teaching him. As moving (or nauseating) and heartwarming (or eye-rolling) as this can be, we have to wonder if this is the same octopus, or is Foster just weaving and shaping a narrative to make a family-friendly documentary? At first, I had my suspicions since the film is cut up into several sections showing him telling a story into the camera that seems plausibly made up.
After some research, however, I have concluded that the film is reliable, since these tentacled animals tend to stay in the same kelp area to mate and breed. That doesn't mean Foster's story isn't told by a master manipulator. The film starts to sober up from all the lush visuals and common octopus’s goodness when the animal mates and has its babies, which signals the end of its existence.
We see footage of Foster's poor friend being nipped and slowly dying away. It used to hunt and ate its neighbors, now these start the circle of life all over again. It's admittedly tough to watch, and will scare the kiddos much like that infamous scene in March of the Penguins still gives me nightmares. The two protagonists share a strange range of emotions, they have a magical connection.
Pippa Ehrlich's film reminded me a bit of the work of the great Werner Herzog. It's a bit of an oddball film that features an unlikely pair in a wondrous setting with some internal conflict. As enjoyable as My Octopus Teacher can be, it's likely Oscar win tonight will have a critical turn. The film is a bit of a victim of its own success. I can think of a dozen different documentaries that are better than this one, and ultimately it's the audience that defines classics.
That's where the magic lies, with its audience.