'Pelican Dreams': Film Review

Courtesy of Judy Irving
You'll never look at a pelican the same way again

Judy Irving's documentary sheds informative light on these fascinating creatures

With the exception of that lovable rapscallion Ruffus from the Dolphin Tale movies, pelicans have received woefully scant screen exposure. Correcting that egregious oversight is documentary filmmaker Judy Irving, whose latest effort does for these graceful, inventive birds what her previous film The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill did for parrots. Thankfully devoid of the cutesy anthropomorphizing that afflicts so many Disney nature documentaries, Pelican Dreams will give you a new appreciation for these creatures sometimes referred to as "flying dinosaurs."

The film was precipitated by an unusual occurrence: a malnourished California brown pelican found her way onto the Golden Gate Bridge, creating a huge traffic jam and getting "arrested" for her troubles. She was sent to a wildlife rehabilitation facility, with the filmmaker dubbing her "Gigi" in a nod to where she was rescued and where she was cared for by a solicitous caretaker who advises her, "You should eat!"

The story of Gigi's recovery is interspersed with that of Morro, an injured brown pelican adopted by an animal-loving married couple who clearly have an affinity for the wild birds. After all, as Irving points out, "Who wouldn't want to have a pelican as a buddy?"

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The three month-old Gigi was apparently born on the Channel Islands, the only place in the area where pelicans still breed. To discover the facts of her subject's early life, the filmmaker travels to the island where she observes such things as pelicans mating (it ain't pretty) and the daunting obstacles faced by newborn chicks who are forced to ruthlessly compete with their siblings for food. Generally, one in three doesn't make it.

The film also chronicles other hazards facing the birds who almost went extinct in the area a few decades ago thanks to DDT being released by chemical companies. Add to that the perils presented by fisherman who don't bother to intervene when the birds accidentally eat their baiting hooks or become ensnared in their lines; global warming that produces environmental challenges; and such disasters as the BP oil spill, and it's a tough life for the embattled creatures.

Along the way, we learn that they are curious animals who initiate eye contact with humans as if they were inquisitive canines and that, unlike most birds, they are virtually silent and communicate by body language. The latter is illustrated by a courting ritual involving the near 360 degree twirling of their heads, a neat trick if you can pull it off.

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At the request of the director, the pelicans' eventual fates won't be revealed here. Suffice it to say that by the film's conclusion you'll have a greater appreciation for these deceptively complex creatures. And the adorable sight of Morro wandering through his caretakers' living room curiously checking out the unfamiliar surroundings will almost, if not quite, spur a desire to have a pelican buddy of your own.

Production: Pelican Media
Director/screenwriter/producer/director of photography/editor: Judy Irving
Composer: Bruce Kaphan

Rated G, 80 min.


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