In the lineup of cuddly creatures that make endearing subjects for natural history films, you don’t find a lot of insects. Monarch butterflies are an exception. No matter how nondescript the setting – a vacant lot, a roadside ditch – when a monarch alights it bestows a moment of tropical splendour.
But it is the monarchs’ extraordinary fall migration, during which they fly thousands of kilometres from Canada and the northern United States to central Mexico, that seals the deal. Grace and tenacity makes an irresistible combination.
Those twin traits are on full display in the IMAX film Flight of the Butterflies, which opens this week at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, just a few miles from where the film’s opening scenes were shot.
The film delivers a parallel narrative that unpacks the multigenerational voyage of a single monarch and her descendants and intertwines it with the real-life story of Fred Urquhart (Gordon Pinsent), a University of Toronto entomologist, and his wife, Norah (Patricia Phillips), whose decades of work tagging and recording butterflies led to the discovery of their winter haven in the Sierra Madre.
Urquhart was a boy growing up in Scarborough in the 1920s when he first became fascinated with monarchs and wondered where they disappeared to each year. The question stayed with him through his student days and became a serious passion once he was an academic – though not one that was necessarily taken seriously by colleagues or trumpeted to funding agencies.
With much perseverance, Urquhart developed a way of sticking numbered tags on to the wings of butterflies with the words, “Send to Zoology University of Toronto Canada.” Starting in the 1950s, he and Norah enlisted the support of thousands of citizen scientists across North America in an effort to trace butterflies’ migratory routes and ultimate destination. The riddle was finally solved in January, 1975, when Ken and Catalina Brugger, an American-Mexican couple working with the Urquharts, found multitudes of monarchs taking shelter in the forested mountains of Mexico’s Michoacan state.
The script occasionally struggles to deliver its content within the confines of a 45-minute film – about as long as a museum can hold an audience in one place. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for science between the storytelling. Some details, like a three-dimensional computerized look at the internal organs of a caterpillar as it changes into a butterfly, feel rushed. As animals, monarchs are both familiar and otherworldly and it is the latter quality that is more hidden here with a story that aims to personify their journey.
Still, Flight of the Butterflies stands out as one of the best of its genre. That can only be good news for the monarchs, whose epic migration is now at some risk thanks to the double whammy of increasingly erratic weather in their wintering grounds – a likely byproduct of climate change – and industrial-size agriculture across the U.S. Midwest, which is wiping out the uncultivated pockets where milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s only food source, can grow. These challenges are dealt with, briefly, in the film. One is left to imagine the technical challenges the filmmakers battled to capture the monarchs in their high-altitude hideaway.
It is a rare bug that can generate so much admiration and a rare film that can take us outside of ourselves to suddenly realize that a natural miracle is taking place before our eyes. In that respect, the monarch is simply the best-dressed messenger of a larger theme: that insects are the vehicle for evolution’s most audacious and creative experiments. We must understand them not simply because they are fascinating but because they represent a powerhouse of biological complexity that may help us in innumerable ways.
“It’s one of those things you don’t have to embellish,” Pinsent said when describing his reaction to seeing the millions of monarchs overwintering in Mexico, where the film’s most awe-inspiring moments take place. “You just have to have respect for it.”