Flight of the Butterflies: Film Review

Flight of the Butterflies film still - H 2012

Flight of the Butterflies film still - H 2012

Pretty pictures are balanced with science history in IMAX nature doc.

The latest IMAX nature film focuses on the Monarch's Canada-to-Mexico migration.

Not quite the eye candy some will expect, Mike Slee's Flight of the Butterflies looks not at the entire rainbow of butterfly varieties but at a single species, the Monarch. Balancing some impressive footage with the story of a scientist who made Monarchs his life's work, the film satisfies, even if its wow factor is lower than that of some other long-running IMAX titles.

The picture pairs present-day footage following each stage in the Monarch's life and migration with reenactments telling the story of Toronto scientist Fred Urquhart. Fascinated with the winged beauties since his youth, Urquhart spent years working on ways to tag them, then spent decades developing a team of "citizen scientists" across North America, all in hopes of tracking where, exactly, hundreds of millions of them were going every year.

The payoff in this story is fairly stunning: Slee goes to a remote mountaintop in central Mexico, a spot so densely populated by butterflies that the trees seem to be made of them. The photography in these scenes isn't always as vibrant as one expects of large-format films -- at least not when projected on the largest screens in the IMAX circuit -- but the subject itself will produce plenty of oohs and ahhs. (Butterflies is being shown in 3D in some bookings.)

The straightforward naturalist material running parallel to this story is more visually pleasing, finding its fluttering stars in wildflower-rich Texas fields and offering plentiful extreme closeups. Surprisingly, the butterflies are sometimes overshadowed by caterpillars, more charismatic in their wriggling and nibbling than their beautiful siblings.

The filmmakers take us inside the chrysalis in one time-lapse sequence, watching as the caterpillar morphs into a butterfly. Most viewers will assume this is CGI, but the footage was reportedly made using MRI and Micro CT scans. On the other hand, a high-altitude shot of one Monarch mid-migration looks real but is computer-generated. Nothing about its presentation acknowledges this (only those puzzling over the practicalities of the 360-degree moving-camera shot will guess), which seems out of step with nature-doc conventions.

Production Company: SK Films
Director: Mike Slee
Screenwriters: Mike Slee, Wendy MacKeigan
Producers: Mike Slee, Jonathan Barker, Rafael Cuervo, Myles Connolly
Executive producer: Jonathan Barker
Directors of photography: Simon de Glanville, Paul Williams
Production designer: Sandra Kybartas
Music: Jacobo Lieberman, Leo Heiblum
Costume designer: Steven Wright
Editor: Susan Shipton
No rating, 44 minutes