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The latest marine adventure by Greg MacGillivray, dean of Imax ocean films, celebrates the resurgence of a once-endangered mammal and showcases it in large-as-life action, among crystalline waters and psychedelic swells of krill. Immersive in ways that not many movies can claim, Humpback Whales is a prime example of the power of large-format documentaries to educate, delight and inspire. The first Imax starring vehicle for the titular cetaceans, it’s sure to have a long life at science centers and aquariums.
Four years in the making, the doc tracks the 40-ton acrobats in three of their stunning stomping grounds: Hawaii, Alaska and Tonga, a South Pacific kingdom that enjoys a thriving whale-watching industry decades after ending its tradition of whale hunting. Known for their spectacular thrashes of elegant tails and especially exuberant leaps, aka breaching, humpbacks are still a mystery on many fronts, including the particulars of their mating and birth, neither of which has ever been never witnessed by human observers.
They’re unique among whales for the elaborate singing that the males engage in, one of the most complex vocalizations of any animal on Earth. As the solution-oriented film stresses, it was midcentury recordings of whale song that helped to save the much-hunted creatures from extinction. Maui-based Jim Darling, who specializes in the study of humpback croonings, is one of the researchers interviewed for the film.
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Ewan McGregor delivers writer/editor Stephen Judson’s crisp, enlightening narration with a sense of wonder that’s spirited but not heavy-handed, and an upbeat music score further accentuates the positive. Equipped with the hefty Imax camera as well as the more snorkel-friendly RED digital, MacGillivray and his intrepid crew capture close encounters that lend the whales’ story a relatable intimacy without stooping to the cutesiness of anthropomorphization.
The filmmakers don’t insist that viewers get to know the whales as individuals, but it makes their interactions vivid and captivating, whether tracking a mother and her calf or watching in amazement as an apparently courting pair circle the boat repeatedly in a rarely seen behavior. Perhaps most amazing is the teamwork known as group bubble net feeding, depicted in a seamless blend of footage and animation. It begins with a synchronized dive and progresses into a combination of specialized actions that drive a school of herrings to the surface. There, the humpbacks scoop them up by the gargantuan mouthful, and the extraordinary camerawork puts the viewer among the feeding, splashing beasts.
The movie emphasizes the good news of the humpback’s return from the brink, but makes it clear that even as regional populations are growing, the species’ worldwide numbers are only 40% of what they once were, before mass-scale commercial whaling took its toll. The detrimental effects of noise pollution and climate change, huge subjects in themselves, aren’t directly explored, but the doc does address the problem of collisions between ships and whales and ways that it’s being mitigated.
Proactive solution meet breathtaking action in a sequence that races along with a heroic team of rescuers: Using buoys, transmitters, grappling hooks and underwater cameras, along with exceptionally agile problem-solving, they attempt to liberate whales that have become entangled in life-threatening fishing gear and other debris.
For the slightly less adventurous and the landlocked, website info for advocacy groups appears at the end of the film.
Production company: MacGillivray Freeman Films
Narrator: Ewan McGregor
Featuring: Ali Takau, Fred Sharpe, Meagan Jones, Jim Darling, Ed Lyman
Director: Greg MacGillivray
Screenwriter: Stephen Judson
Producers: Shaun MacGilivray, Mark Krenzien
Executive producers: Harrison Smith, Bob Haskell, Tennyson Oyler
Director of photography: Brad Ohlund
Editors: Stephen Judson, Tim Amick
Composers: Steve Wood, Calum Graham
Underwater directors of photography:Howard Hall, Peter Kragh, Jason Sturgis, Michele Hall
Supervising sound editor:Andrew DeCristofaro
No rating, 40 minutes
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