Island of Lemurs: Madagascar: Film Review
Imax gets up close and personal with Madagascar’s endemic, endangered lemurs.
Cartoon-cute and epic-heroic, the lemur proves a charismatic subject, more than ready for its giant-screen close-up, in the latest edutainment feature from Imax. Island of Lemurs: Madagascar is light on nature-film factoids about the lithe mammal’s daily nitty-gritty; instead, director-cinematographer David Douglas and writer Drew Fellman offer a dazzling introduction, both immersive and sweeping, to one of the planet’s oldest primates (who knew?).
With its 3D imagery and concise narration, delivered with avuncular warmth by Morgan Freeman, the film provides a streamlined overview of lemurs’ singular survival story and their not so unique present-day endangerment. It’s also a collection of vivid lemur portraits, across a vast range of species and personalities. Urgent but never hectoring, the lessons in conservation and biodiversity are fully felt. The film will undoubtedly inspire young future scientists and more than a few grownups to delve further into the topic of lemurs — whose name derives from the Latin for “wandering spirit,” Freeman tells us — and the island nation off the coast of Africa that has been their only home for millions of years.
An Imax vet whose credits include Born to Be Wild, Douglas availed himself of a relatively lightweight new-generation camera to capture the first aerial footage shot in Imax 3D (rather than converted in postproduction) — all the better to view Madagascar’s varied terrain, from spiny forests to rocky outcrops to lush green rainforest, and to follow lemurs leaping through the canopy with nothing short of gusto.
The remoteness of many of the locations and the massiveness of the undertaking are suggested by the scope of the finished product rather than by directly addressing the logistics, as some wildlife movies make a point of doing. Douglas is more concerned with creating indelible impressions — a goal he achieves, with Peter Thillaye’s sound design, rich with ocean breeze and insect whir, an essential component of the you-are-there experience.
The marriage of 3D and Imax makes possible a sensory immediacy that Island of Lemurs uses to strong effect, zeroing in on a number of species, from the tiny mouse lemur to the large indri. In riveting close-up, the texture of fur is all but tangible; the sea green of an infant’s eyes is breathtaking; the indri's lips form a crimson curve around the vowels of a choral wail. In appreciative long take, there’s the springy step of the ringtail and the infectious bounding locomotion, or “dance,” of the sifaka.
The story of the lemurs, all of them matriarchal and indigenous to Madagascar, is the story of 60 million years of flourishing and diversification, followed by 2,000 years of habitat degradation caused by human settlement. Using a stateside population of captive lemurs and green-screen effects for the opening sequence, Douglas convincingly re-enacts their creation story: castaways in a storm, drifting toward Madagascar, their Eden. That they enjoyed a predator-free life for many eons is no doubt etched in their genetic memory, and perhaps finds expression in the way they hang from branches or lounge around, bellies to the sun and not a care in the world.
But the film, in its sprightly way, makes clear that there’s plenty to worry about, with the lemurs threatened by the loss of vast swaths of rainforest to agriculture. The filmmakers find beacons of hope in a couple of longtime field researchers: Hantanirina Rasamimanana, a Malagasy native, and American primatologist Patricia C. Wright. A dramatic highlight is the matchmaking project Wright oversees, designed to boost the dwindling numbers of the critically endangered greater bamboo lemur. Douglas catches Wright’s hopeful sigh as the experiment gets under way, and, quite affectingly, witnesses the first time she gets to hold one of the animals after years of championing and communing with them. A brief glimpse of villagers offers hope, too, alluding to growing eco-consciousness among the younger generation.
The dire warnings are succinct and clear, but Douglas accentuates the positive. Helping to maintain the upbeat mood is Mark Mothersbaugh’s playful score, as well as delightful Malagasy versions of such pop classics as “Be My Baby” and “I Will Survive,” recorded by Hanitrarivo Rasoanaivo & Tarika. Like the eloquent visuals, the music conveys the joy of observing the lemurs in action.
Opens: Friday, April 4 (Warner Bros.)
Production: Imax Entertainment
Narrator: Morgan Freeman
Featuring: Patricia C. Wright, Hantanirina Rasamimanana
Director: David Douglas
Screenwriter: Drew Fellman
Producer: Drew Fellman
Director of photography: David Douglas
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
Co-producer: Diane Roberts
Editor: Beth Spiegel
Sound design: Peter Thillaye
Rated G; 39 min.