From Disney's long-running True-Life Adventures series (1948-1960) to decades worth of 40-minute Imax films, wildlife documentaries have long been a family entertainment staple, serving as a sort of counterpoint to animated fare in which critters behave more like sitcom stars and action heroes.
Among the recent doc crop, Under the Sea and Deep Sea were both commercial and artistic successes, their subject matter particularly well suited to the "immersive" quality of Imax 3-D technology.
Born to Be Wild 3D, a new film following parallel stories about the rehabilitation of orphaned orangutans in Borneo and elephants in Kenya, is decidedly landlocked. Yet while the visuals aren't nearly as eye-popping as those of the underwater movies, the film is more inspiring thanks to its human heroines.
For decades, Dame Daphne M. Sheldrick has been rescuing orphaned baby elephants from the Kenyan savannah. She developed a formula substitute for mother's milk and, along with a team of male keepers, created an activity and teaching program that allows the young elephants to reintegrate with the wild population.
Meanwhile, in Borneo, Canada-born primatologist Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas and her team have been mother substitutes for hundreds of orangutans, which are eventually taken deep into the jungle to begin a more solitary adult life.
While the film touches on the human activity that threatens the existence of these endangered animals and talks about the need for protected habitats, the focus is primarily on the animals' interaction with humans. At both orphanage camps, keepers actually sleep with their young charges - it's not just a job, it's a major life commitment.
But the film's main attraction, of course, is the baby animals. Orangutans and elephants are highly intelligent creatures and, like humans, learn through play. Director David Lickley doesn't let the camera get too close to the elephants, who spend their days in a large group, but we get up close and personal with the orangutans - the new, lightweight digital Imax camera allowing us to climb into the trees with the youngsters for some wonderful, intimate scenes of discovery.
The constant flipping back and forth between Borneo and Kenya does result in a somewhat fractured film; with the 40-minute running time divided between two stories, there isn't much time for substantial context.
But the hip soundtrack adds momentum, and the reassuring narration of Morgan Freeman lets us know these lucky orphans will have a fighting chance for survival after taking their first steps - or swings - back into the wild.
Born to Be Wild 3D
- Directed by David Lickley
- Written by Drew Fellman
- Narrated by Morgan Freeman
- Classification: G
Born to Be Wild 3D opens in select Imax theatres across Canada on Friday.
Special to The Globe and Mail