There aren’t many documentaries about Minnesota artists. There aren’t many about wildlife painters, either.
“The Million Dollar Duck” makes you wish there were more of both. The film, premiering Wednesday on Animal Planet, is an engaging waddle through the U.S. government’s annual Federal Duck Stamp Contest, in which the winners get the back of their work licked by anyone seeking a duck-hunting permit.
The feds don’t really hand over a giant check, but champs retain the right to license their images for limited-edition prints as well as merchandise ranging from T-shirts to coffee mugs, reaping revenue that more than covers the cost of paint. No wonder contestants compare it to winning “American Idol” or the Super Bowl.
This year’s contest is being held this weekend in Philadelphia. (You can watch judges narrow down the field by going here. The action starts at 9 a.m. Friday and Saturday with a winner to be crowned sometime around 11 a.m. Saturday. Happy hunting!) The heavy favorites remain the Hautman brothers, three Minnesota siblings immortalized in the movie “Fargo,” when Marge Gunderson’s husband wonders whether he should even bother sending in an entry.
“We’re called the New York Yankees, but I’d rather be the Minnesota Twins, although they don’t win as much,” says Jim Hautman, who has won three times.
Last fall, the brothers kept the competition quaking in their waders by sweeping the top three spots.
That’s not a spoiler. The Animal Planet movie, directed without a drop of deprecation by Brian Golden Davis, focuses on the 2013 showdown, with a bevy of colorful, sympathetic artists including Dee Dee Murry, whose blind dog became a more renowned painter than her owner; former winner Adam Grimm, desperate to make a comeback, and earnest Tim Taylor, a veteran who frets that his most lasting legacy will be painting puffy Santa Claus images during the holiday season.
If there’s a villain, it’s Rob McBroom, a security guard at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, who needles the establishment every fall with abstract entries that owe more to sequins and glitter than Mother Nature.
“I wonder if the guy has ever actually seen a duck,” says Taylor.
But McBroom’s motives aren’t as diabolical as they first appear — he may be doing more to shine the spotlight on waterfowl preservation than any card-carrying Audubon Society member — and you may wind up rooting for him, even if he’s the longest of long shots.
“You can’t have a less than zero percent chance, but it’s pretty close,” he says as he prepares for hisses for his latest “masterpiece.”
The contest itself turns out to be more cutthroat than you could imagine. The 201 paintings (one is disqualified for depicting the wrong species) are evaluated in front of a folding-chair crowd by a panel of no-nonsense judges who punch scorecards into the air as if they were weighing in on an Olympics gymnastics routine. It’s a simple, heartless process, more nail-biting than anything on “Dancing With the Stars.”
The winner may not shock you, but the built-in drama of the entire ordeal, from time-consuming field trips to capture fowl in action to the simple devastation of being knocked out of competition, are the ingredients of great TV.
By the time it’s over, you’ll wonder if a million bucks is really enough.
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