Grade: B-/C+
Not rated (would be PG)

Stuffed sounds like it could be a Thanksgiving-themed film for foodies, but it’s actually a documentary about taxidermy. You know: stuffing dead animals, birds, and fish for display. And if you’re wondering who would be interested in a movie like that, you’re not alone. As we watched, we wondered the same thing.

I was interested because my age lines up with one of the senior taxidermists interviewed in this 84-minute documentary. She noted that their generation of taxidermists got their start as children by taking a taxidermy correspondence course where the lessons came in installments, by mail. I took that very same course and remember looking for fresh road kill squirrels or pigeons, then trying to peel away the skin, remove the body, replace it with a mess of wires and sisal, and sew it up again. That was the era when kids were as fascinated by museum dioramas as they were ventriloquism and magic. So as someone who was a complete failure as an adolescent taxidermist, I watched Stuffed with nostalgic interest and admiration for those who can actually do this, and do it well.

Stuffed pretty much explains why I was unable to create lifelike taxidermy mounts. Taxidermy, as this film aptly illustrates, requires the talents of a naturalist, a craftsman, and an artist. As it turned out, I didn’t have an ounce of Picasso in me. So for an audience of up-and-coming generation of potential taxidermists, the film drives home the point that taxidermy is mostly an art that also requires the mindset and calculations of a scientist, the exacting talent of a sculptor and painter, and the passion of a naturalist.

Yet, young people today are eco-savvy, so I’m not sure that they’d respond well to parts of this film that show hipster taxidermists creating “rogue” mounts that are not true to nature and are done for fun or pure artistic license. They also might cringe when taxidermists who cater to the hunter-fisherman crowd talk about how hunters and fishermen are the biggest conservationists. If that were true, wouldn’t they have a different voting record than they do? Overall, though, director Erin Derham gives us a nice cross-section of different types of taxidermists and features as many women as men.

I rather imagine today’s young people with any fascination with taxidermy would be more drawn to the taxidermists shown here who work at museums and are dedicated to preserving creatures that have died of natural causes—ones who work in this profession because they appreciate the beauty of nature and want to preserve these creatures for future generations. I missed seeing one of Chicago’s most beloved Great Apes, for example, but when Bushman died a year after I was born I was able to appreciate his grandness at the Field Museum, thanks to a talented taxidermist. There’s a segment here that really captures that important function of taxidermy, when we see a famed and beloved tortoise who died of natural causes in captivity mounted so that he is forever preserved for people to remember and admire.

It might be a matter of personal taste, but my son and I most enjoyed this documentary when the filmmakers focused on how dedicated the taxidermists were to not just “stuffing” the animal but trying to capture its personality. That meant making detailed drawings of the animal from film, talking with trainers, and studying photos and the physiology of others of the same species. And it meant spending many more hours than I was willing to dedicate to the art as a youngster.

Some of the most interesting segments of Stuffed focus on the interactions that taxidermists have with live animals, as well as a segment on Carl Akeley, who’s acknowledged as the father of contemporary taxidermy and renowned for his contributions to the Field Museum in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He was the one who brought habitat design to exhibits featuring taxidermy mounts, and the one whose efforts sparked great interest in nature and conservation. His earliest diorama can still be seen at the Milwaukee Public Museum, and those who know of P.T. Barnum and Barnum’s famed “Jumbo” the elephant might find it of interest that Akeley and William J. Critchley were the taxidermists who mounted Jumbo, which was displayed at Tufts University for many years before it was destroyed in a fire.

To be sure, Stuffed will have a limited audience, and it would seem to be mostly for the hardcore naturalists and people who have always admired taxidermy mounts and wondered what all goes into each one. Spoiler alert: a lot.

Entire family: No (limited appeal)
Run time: 84 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Music Box Films
Aspect ratio: 1.85 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Amazon link