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The Disney brand has classically been associated with animation, and in a more modern context the studio is known for live-action blockbuster films, but nature documentaries are actually just as much a part of the DNA of Disney as the cartoon mouse. Walt Disney Productions released Seal Island, the first "True Life Adventure" film, in 1948, and ever since the company has continued to show us Disney's unique perspective on the world around us.
Disneynature, the studio label that carries on the tradition of the True Life Adventures, has been releasing films since 2008, and many of them have seen theatrical release. With the newest effort, Dolphin Reef, the Disney arm, which has seen declining success at the box office over the years, makes the leap to Disney+. Considering that right now a lot of us are stuck inside, perhaps there's no better time to take a look at the world around us through the movie – though it may leave you even more frustrated you can't go outside.
The unique element to a Disney documentary is its focus on storytelling. Each one creates characters and crafts a narrative around the various elements on display. It can be a little trough for traditional documentary fans to get used to, as a narrator ascribes internal thoughts and motivations to a living creature that we can't possibly understand that well, but if you let yourself get caught up, it can take you on a lovely journey. For Dolphin Reef, the narrative mostly surrounds Echo, a juvenile pacific bottlenose dolphin. Echo relies on his mother, Kumu, to help him survive, but eventually, like all children, he's got to learn to make it on his own.
But Echo's story really only covers a bit more than half the run time of Dolphin Reef, as the reef that Echo and his pod of dolphins frequent is the real center of everything. We're introduced to a number of animals, including some you've likely seen before in other documentaries, like humpback whales and tiger sharks. Others you're maybe less familiar with, like the peacock mantis shrimp, and really, you need to become familiar with the peacock mantis shrimp. Some of them are given names to help the audience connect with them more easily, others are not.
Natalie Portman is the perfect narrator for Dolphin Reef.
Natalie Portman handles narration duties to tell us the story of Echo and his friends. The actress is a strong animal rights advocate, and that comes through when Dolphin Reef requires serious language about the fragility of coral reef environments, but she's also playful and funny when the story requires it – which it frequently does. She never pulls focus onto herself, instead letting the sea creatures have the spotlight throughout. At the same time, she adds a charm to the whole affair that might be missing with the wrong voice.
Dolphin Reef is a visually stunning display.
While storytelling is always vital to Disney, obviously, nature documentaries are as much, or more, about what you see, and Dolphin Reef never fails to disappoint in that regard. Disneynature films were always worth the IMAX ticket to see beautiful landscapes and and amazing creatures in their natural environments in ways that most us would never be able to. Here, the larger, and more capable your television, the better experience you'll have.
The visuals do fare somewhat better than the story itself. Dolphin Reef tries to do a lot in its scant 77 minute run time. The story of the dolphin and the story of the reef are related, but largely kept separate. After being introduced to our dolphin friends, we largely lose track of them throughout the first half of the film to meet various other, admittedly interesting, creatures on the reef. Then we catch back up with Echo in the second half, and largely forget about everything else we just saw. Each half is good, but it feels like we got two smaller documentaries sewn together, rather than a single complete story.
Dolphin Reef fails to balance the story of dolphin and reef.
And while Dolphin Reef might be full of real animals, the narrative being told does come from Disney, which means you can fairly certain that everything is going to turn out okay for the animals. While real nature can be quite violent, you'll see little of that here. Moments of apparent jeopardy never feel genuine. While in other documentaries you might expect to watch one animal kill another, Dolphin Reef is as bloodless as the studio's PG-13 action movies. Nothing bad is going to happen to an animal that the films bothers to name.
If you're looking for a serious documentary, there are a lot of options out there, many certainly more in depth, but whether it's through the beautiful visuals or the charming story, Dolphin Reef will almost certainly hold the attention of even the youngest viewer, and all will come away having learned a little something about a part of the natural world that few have seen like this.