Is there anybody, anywhere who doesn't love Betty White?
Ever since the actress, Golden Girl and living legend has defaulted to being America's Grandma for the past few years, it seems that there's nothing she can do wrong. Nothing, at least, until the DVD documentary Betty White: Champion for Animals came along. It's not really her fault, however. For as long as she's been famous, White has been a valuable spokesperson for the humane treatment of animals of all stripes. Making a feature-length documentary that explores that commitment is a sound idea with its heart in the right place. What a shame, then, that the resulting film is a rambling, badly produced trifle in which Betty barely appears. If the cover art was truly indicative of this film's contents, Betty would be about the size of the meerkat peeking over her shoulder.
Although Betty White: Champion for Animals decently covers Betty's lifelong love of our furry friends (including opening scenes of her being interviewed, seemingly in a photo booth), the film's true mission is to explore various places around the world where people are actively working to save animal populations and preserve our planet's biodiversity. This includes tracking bison and wolves in Yellowstone, studying the penguin population in South Africa, and exploring the conservation programs at well-regarded institutions like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Maryland Zoo. A typical segment starts with a dryly written intro from an unseen narrator, following by interviews with the participants and lots of excess footage of animals frolicking with bad music playing on the soundtrack. While the documentary never descends into outright terribleness, the bland presentation throughout reminds me of the videos that play on an endless loop at zoo and aquarium exhibits. Those videos may be informative while glanced at in a setting with live animals, but they suffer terribly in DVD format.
Despite never-ending montages of cute animals in the wild used throughout Betty White: Champion for Animals, he film is decidedly not all warm and fuzzy. Some segments deal candidly with abusive practices as they relate to such ethically reprehensible activities as poaching, pit bull breeding and cock fighting. There are scenes of amimals being tranquilized, prodded, poked, and operated on - along with enough sad puppy and kitty shots to make Sarah McLachlan pen a tear-jerking tribute in response. The fact that the filmmakers are willing to go into such uncomfortable territory is laudable - it doesn't make the segments very compelling, however. As with the more kid-friendly pieces, they end up being padded out to interminable length.
As uninvolving as Betty White: Champion for Animals can be, the film does perk up in the two (out of twelve) segments in which Ms. White actively participates. Betty's warmth and passion for animal welfare comes through clearly when she talks about BraveHearts, a Chicago-based charity that uses horses as therapy for handicapped children and veterans with PTSD. In another segment, she shares the joy of meeting a beluga whale at the Georgia Aquarium while praising that institution's conservation and research programs. What does it say about a film when the most excitement comes via a 90 year-old lady?
Image Entertainment's DVD of Betty White: Champion for Animals comes with a 16x9 picture enhanced for widescreen TVs. While the newer footage of White and various zoos/aquariums are agreeable to look at, the film also uses older sourced material that varies wildly in quality (including a couple of segments taken from degraded 4x3 videotapes).
The only audio option is a decent sounding stereo mix which is pleasant and non-showy. No subtitles or alternate audio on this disc.
A one minute-long trailer, which also overstates Betty's presence in the film, is the disc's sole extra.
Betty White is a national treasure, therefore criticizing something she was involved in might be similar to kicking my own grandma. That said, Champion for Animals amounts to little more than a string of blandly produced animal conservation PSAs with deceptively little to no Betty. While well-intentioned enough, the 89 minutes spent watching this would find better use volunteering at your local no-kill animal shelter. Skip It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.