'Dolphin Reef': Film Review

Dolphin Reef Still 1 - Publicity - h 2020
Courtesy of Disney+
An entertaining and visually stunning nature doc geared to the small fry.

Natalie Portman narrates the new Disneynature documentary about a free-spirited bottlenose dolphin and his extended family living near a coral reef in the Pacific Ocean.

With the exception of Flipper from 1960s television, or maybe the talking Fa and Bea from Mike Nichols' 1973 movie The Day of the Dolphin, few cinematic dolphins have displayed quite as much personality as Echo, the main character in Dolphin Reef, Disneynature's new documentary premiering on Disney+, narrated by Natalie Portman. Behaving like a typically free-spirited adolescent, Echo adores his mother Kumu and the members of his extended family, or pod ("If he could hug them, he would," Portman informs us, adding that Echo has to settle for slapping flippers instead). He's not a model student, as evidenced by his being endlessly distracted by his fellow denizens of the deep. And he isn't merely exploring the coral reef where he makes his home, he's "cruising the boulevard."

Such anthropomorphism is standard in Disney nature films, designed for a young audience not ready for the upsetting realities featured in such BBC documentaries as Planet Earth and Blue Planet. Such cutesiness may prove grating to adult viewers, but the films serve their purpose of introducing children to the glories of nature. And at least, the animals, unlike those in the Lion King remake, don't talk.

The 3-year-old Echo lives in the Pacific waters off the Polynesian Islands, alongside such creatures as the colorful peacock mantis shrimp, gardener fish, tiger and reef sharks ("They're way too serious," Echo apparently feels), bumphead parrotfish and cuttlefish, whose skin flashes mesmerizingly like a strobe. The film's other main characters are a 40-foot humpback whale and her calf, the latter particularly irresistible to orca killer whales.

All of them have their role in the ecosystem, of course. The bumphead parrotfish, for instance, eat dead coral, which is vital to the health of the reef. As a result, they emit a whole lot of "sand poop," which we see in scenes that should have the small fry giggling with delight (parents should be braced to hear the term a lot from their children for days afterwards).

The film contains many fascinating details, such as its description of a type of coral that has medicinal properties that heal skin infections, leading dolphins to rub their bodies against it as if it were an aquatic back-scratcher. And it effectively showcases ordinary dolphin behavior in such scenes as Kumo teaching Echo her method for corralling fish that involves high-speed hydroplaning in shallow waters while avoiding getting beached. By the time the pic reaches its conclusion, Echo has "come of age," no longer needing his mother for survival and becoming a productive member of the pod.

As with so many efforts of this type, the film also strains heavily to infuse the proceedings with melodramatic episodes, such as Echo getting lost in a deep canyon during a stormy night and being led to safety by a life-saving turtle. A little of this sort of thing goes a long way.  

Dolphin Reef benefits greatly from the gorgeous cinematography and canny editing typical of Disney nature docs as well as Portman's soothingly lighthearted, bedtime story-style narration that turns serious at just the right times. The end credits feature enlightening, behind-the-scenes footage in which we see intrepid underwater cinematographers capturing the visually dynamic footage we've just witnessed.

Production company: Walt Disney Studios
Distributor: Disney+
Narrator: Natalie Portman
Director: Keith Scholey
Screenwriter: David Fowler
Producers: Keith Scholey, Alastair Fothergill, Roy Conli
Director of photography: Paul Atkins
Composer: Steven Price

77 minutes