Opening against a big budgeted, critically raved about, sure-to-be blockbuster called Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a meek, 40-minute nature documentary about the wonder of lemurs. Even with the bump up of IMAX and IMAX 3D tickets--the only ones that can be bought for the pic--Island of Lemurs: Madagascar has no hope of being a box office behemoth. But it is brilliant counter-programming, offering moviegoers worn out on superheroes something real and undeniably enchanting.
Island of Lemurs: Madagascar reunites much of the team who brought us 2011's Born to Be Wild, a nature doc that likewise used IMAX 3D cameras to capture wild life in their natural habitat. Born to Be Wild cinematographer David Douglas is both the director of photography and helmer of Island of Lemurs: Madagascar. With a tested team of producers and Morgan Freeman on board as the narrator, Douglas crafts a lean lemur narrative that exhibits ambitious and awe-inspiring camera setups that are not only gorgeous, but also telling about the relationship of lemurs and humans.
Freeman's warm voice leads audiences into the remarkable evolution of lemurs, which have been on this planet for 60 million years. Their clade started in Africa. But when a batch of lemurs unexpectedly became castaways washed up on the shores of Madagascar, they flourished, evolving into a variety of different species. Their African ancestors eventually died out, leaving lemurs exclusively in Madagascar.
Researcher Dr. Patricia C. Wright unfolds how the lemurs' greatest natural enemy has become humans, who've already burned down huge sections of their forests to make way for farmland and grazing space for cattle. While Wright's message of conservation and environmentalism plays at the core of Island of Lemurs: Madagascar, the film is first and foremost about reveling in the joy of watching lemurs frolic, an experience that is downright delightful.
Douglas introduces each new breed of lemur with its own distinctive musical theme and character. For instance, Freeman's narration tells us the ring-tailed lemurs are like outlaws because they get food by charging down from their rocky-ledged homes into farms. The comparison is made to a band of rough-and-tumble cowboys, while in the background music befitting the Wild West vibe plays. Later, the introduction of Sifaka lemurs, who are known for their graceful leaping, is accompanied by jaunty dance music that would thrill Fred Astaire.
These music choices are integral to the film's buoyant and playful tone, which plays well into the shot selection that presents lemurs as fascinating, strange, and totally adorable. They look like real-life Muppets with their bright pinpoint eyes, fluffy coats, and sometime eerily human gestures. Their close-ups caused actual cooing to break out in the audience. But cute overload isn't the film's only merit.
Douglas is a well-established nature videographer, and he manages to enhance the grandeur of these glorious landscapes and charismatic creatures through thoughtful camera moves that tilt from treetops to forest floors, or capture in slow motion the astounding dexterity of these leaping lemurs. But my absolute favorite moment of the whole film is a single shot from above the treetops looking down. Below, we see leaves sheltering lemurs as they run and jump from one limb to another. And far below that is Dr. Wright, smiling with a notebook in hand. It's a moment of co-existence that is breathtaking and hopeful about the lemurs and human's future together.
Island of Lemurs: Madagascar lovingly captures lemurs in the wild, while clearly displaying how humans have become a part of this environment for better or worse. While there's a definite message about conservation vs. human greed in the film, it's one that is gently delivered, keeping the focus on its furry stars and avoiding being grating or preachy. All in all, it's the kind of movie that would be the climax for a great field trip. And one of the joys of being an adult is that you can make any weekend a field trip, so why not visit with the lemurs of Madagascar?
For more on the film's 3D, check out our To 3D or Not To 3D column.