Hot beast

Penguins are so 2006. What animal will capture the public’s imagination in 2007?
By RYAN STEWART  |  December 21, 2006

HONK IF YOU'RE HORNY: Will manatees conquer the mainstream in 2007?

The pigeon, Six Finger Satellite opined 15 years ago, is the most popular bird. But in early 21st century, penguins have had a pretty sweet run. Yeah, they’ve always been near the top of the flock, but when Warner Independent slapped a Morgan Freeman narration over an obscure French nature flick, the flightless fowl morphed into a full-blown pop-culture epidemic — and March of the Penguins became the second highest-grossing documentary of all time (after Fahrenheit 9/11). Predictably, Warner Bros. picked up the flag and rushed out Happy Feet, a CGI-animated morality tale with a tacked-on happy ending, which has grossed, as of this writing, $140 million in the US.

But by the time Happy Feet’s Elijah Wood tap danced his way into an environmentally-uplifting coda, these lovable rubber-chickens-of-the-sea felt like they’d jumped the shark. So which species will step up and take their place at the head of the animal kingdom? Here are six possibilities, with the odds of their ascension.

Meerkats: 3-1
These lovable mongooses have already been anointed the next big thing in the animal kingdom by, among others, The New York Times. It's a safe choice given the success of Animal Planet's reality show, Meerkat Manor, which, for those who don't know, is a basic Wild America-style documentary of a group of meerkats with narration (by Goonie/Hobbit Sean Astin) that plays up the human drama — family factions form, feud, split, reunite. It's gripping stuff that smartly follows March of the Penguins's formula for success. But March only lasted about 90 minutes. Manor has already covered 26 episodes. Will the show be able to stay fresh going forward? And how can any studio make an animated feature about meerkats when The Lion King already featured an undeniably awesome meerkat character in Timon?

Manatees: 5-1
Late Night host Conan O'Brien gave these seabeasts' public profile an unexpected boost when an off-the-cuff remark made it necessary for NBC to purchase — and build — the Web site (don't ask.) Manatees are odd-looking creatures; they basically resemble bovines with fins. They'll get sympathy votes because of their perpetual status on the endangered list, but because they're such unusual creatures, it's hard to say whether their appeal has legs. But then again, millions have already checked out, so perhaps Conan has awakened some desire for more manatees in popular culture that was previously lying dormant in the collective unconscious.

AN OWL: reacting to his chances at popularity
Turtles: 12-1
Turtles make the list this year because the Teenage Mutant Ninja variety will be back in action. Those of us who were fans in the late ’80s and early ’90s are now reaching nostalgia-based marketing age, so the timing is right. The popularity of the heroes of the half-shell never translated to success for their non-mutated brethren in the past, but maybe that will change this year.

Owls: 20-1
Owls have already permeated popular culture as supporting players. Usually, they’re either fussy, uptight know-it-alls or some kind of portentous sign of dark things to come. Harry Potter gave them a boost, but the wizarding world’s interest in them seems to be mostly utilitarian. Will they ever get the leading role they deserve? If it happens, it would work out really well: internet messageboard tastemakers have ready-made backlash since they planted a flag in them in 2003. YA RLY!

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