The nature documentary, invented by Walt Disney himself and maintained, in the years since, by various filmmakers, philanthropists, and causes, has seen something of a resurgence in recent years, mostly thanks to the annual DisneyNature documentary that focuses on some exotic (but still cuddly) aspect of the animal kingdom. This year's entry, in theaters later this month, is "Bears." But that doesn't mean that Disney, founder of the genre and pioneer since, has cornered the market on the nature documentary. In the fallow years between its invention and the recent initiative, the best nature documentaries were typically seen in large-format IMAX theaters. Together with Warner Bros., IMAX released documentarian's David Douglas' genuinely gripping monkey tale "Born to Be Wild" in 2011, and that same team has reassembled for this week's enthralling "Island of Lemurs: Madagascar."
Narrated, like breakout nature documentary "March of the Penguins," by Morgan Freeman, "Island of Lemurs: Madagascar," takes a look at the tiny island off the coast of Africa that serves as the only indigenous home to lemurs. Why are lemurs to special? Well, thankfully there's a brief animated prologue that answers the question. Lemurs, as it turns out, are "the most ancient primates alive today." They have been around since the dinosaurs, some 65 million years, and even survived the cataclysmic meteor impact that wiped out those thunder lizards. After a violent storm drove a bushel of greenery (housing, it turns out, a bunch of tiny, adorable lemurs) to the primitive island of Madagascar, the lemurs flourished, existing almost by themselves for millions of years. New species of lemur popped up, some of them cute, most of them weird, and all of them endlessly fascinating.
As Morgan intones, in that butter-melting voice, they might have once ruled Madagascar, but since man showed up on the island around 2,000 years ago, their populations have been dwindling. This is largely due to the small cows that were brought over when Madagascar was initially inhabited, and the land said cows require for grazing (also: farmland). As it stands, more than 90% of the island's rain forests have been burned to the ground. This is not exactly encouraging news for the lemurs, who live in the trees that are constantly being set on fire.
There are a whole bunch of lemurs in "Island of Lemurs: Madagascar": there are the stocky kind that only eat bamboo, a species who exist in family groups and let out strangely melodic calls that echo through the jungle, a species that exist solely in a thorny bramble and there are tiny lemurs that are probably the closest thing we're ever going to get to real life "Gremlins" (they're tiny but dangerously toothy). Of course, if there is a star of the documentary, it is the ring-tailed lemurs who have adapted to deforestation by retreating to more rocky terrain. They scale boulders effortlessly and have a punkish attitude: they descend on local farming villages and wreak havoc. Freeman, in the narration, describes their family clusters as "gangs." Those lemurs, with their striped tails and triangular ears, have swagger.
Considerably less swagger-full is the movie's lone human subject, a research scientist from Stonybrook named Patricia Wright, who has spent her entire life cataloging and conserving these miraculous primates. Her "arc" is a good one: she traveled to the island more than 30 years ago on the hunt for a lemur that many thought were extinct (that cool one that eats bamboo). Not only did she discover some on the island, but she has been instrumental in trying to bring their numbers back from the brink of extinction. The problem, of course, is that she's got the worst screen presence this side of Kellan Lutz. She's a research scientist who readily admits to being the most happy when she's alone, surrounded by primordial primates, so the fact that she doesn't cast a spell isn't exactly a surprise. But you'd think she could at least pretend; if you want people to care about lemurs, at least attempt to muster some enthusiasm yourself. Every time Wright is on screen you're going to ask yourself, Where are the lemurs?
It's kind of fascinating that these nature documentaries are, in effect, "issue" documentaries too, since most of the animals cataloged are rare or seriously in danger of becoming extinct. In that sense, "Island of Lemurs: Madagascar" drops the ball. In an effort to soften the somewhat grim outlook on the lemurs, the movie is oddly defanged. Not that it should have been a rousing call to arms. This is, after all, a 40-minute documentary that will be most viewed by kids on field trips. But it would have been nice to have some righteous indignation underneath the gorgeous vistas and genuinely awe-inspiring 3D photography of lemurs leaping right at the camera (Occupy Madagascar?). In Freeman's sugary narration, a subtle strain of outrage could have been even more pronounced, even for school kids.
Even without an active political component, "Island of Lemurs: Madagascar," on a purely visual level, is one of the more amazing things you're likely to see in a theater this year. In the giant-screen IMAX format, you feel like you're on the island, looking up, mouth agape, at the incredible creatures jumping from branch to branch. There's a moment where one of the ring-tailed lemurs strolls majestically atop a rocky plateau. Douglas is unable to contain himself and treats us with a music cue from "2001: A Space Odyssey." It's funny, for sure, but oddly majestic. Monolith or not, this is where we came from—and it's really, really weird. [B+]