Scripps Howard News Service
A group of meerkats on "Meerkat Manor: The Story Begins."

There was grief and sadness among fans of Animal Planet's "Meerkat Manor" last fall when the show's furry star, Whiskers clan matriarch Flower, died after she was bitten by a cobra.

Even before Flower's death, the cable network began production on a prequel film about Flower, "Meerkat Manor: The Story Begins" (Sunday, 6 and 8 p.m., Animal Planet).

"It certainly gave us pause," said senior executive producer Mick Kaczorowski. "The film's ending is where Flower becomes queen of the Kalahari and assumes her position as leader of the Whiskers. We knew (with her death) that we had a much bigger ending than we would have, and we knew we had to address Flower's death in the movie. Now it's a complete tribute to Flower."

The idea to make a movie stemmed from the popularity of Flower and the show, which remains one of Animal Planet's highest-rated series.

"She's a remarkable character and we wanted (the movie) to be character-based," Kaczorowski said.

Although it's still a soap-opera-style nature program about meerkats, "The Story Begins" stands in stark contrast to the series, which is filmed as a straight documentary. The prequel began with a script based on the notes of University of Cambridge professor Tim Clutton-Brock's team, which chronicled Flower's early life.

So Flower is played by other meerkats.

"Some lovely meerkat actresses stepped in," Kaczorowski said, tongue planted firmly in cheek, "like anytime you're trying to do a biopic of any major character from birth to the time she becomes queen.

"We're trying to tell Flower's life story at specific times so we had to find other meerkats that were the same age, same family structure."

They didn't attempt to train the meerkats to act, so the crew set out to capture scenes of meerkats that fit the script.

"We had to find animals doing their own thing and put those scenes together to map out the story we wanted to tell," Kaczorowski said.

The movie also shows off more of the Kalahari than the series, employing filming techniques producers hadn't previously attempted, including aerial shots from a helicopter. The making of the film is chronicled in a special that airs Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

"The television series was specifically shot very low and intimate so you have a one-on-one relationship with the meerkats," Kaczorowski said. "We put you in their world immediately and you spend almost all your time at their eye level. But we knew to make a feature film we needed something bigger. ... We wanted to give everybody a sense of how big the Kalahari is."

Despite Flower's passing, "Meerkat Manor" will continue. Season four, now titled "Meerkat Manor: The Next Generation," premieres on June 6. Stockard Channing replaces Sean Astin as the series' narrator.

"We felt with the passing of Flower — and it wasn't only Flower that passes, she was one of many characters that died last year, unfortunately — this was an opportunity to look at what changes we can make to make something different with the series," Kaczorowski said. That included swapping narrators. "I think you'll find they have a different feel with a woman's point of view. It's funny how you can change a narrator and you start to look at the season in a whole new way."

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