The Whale: Film Review

Serious-minded, thought-provoking animal documentary will have a lengthy life, mostly in ancillary markets.

The Ryan Reynolds-narrated documentary charts the murky waters of several ethical and practical issues behind the life of a young orca named Luna.

Although it's rated G and is opening (in a very modest way) opposite the family-friendly 3D leviathan Dolphin's Tale, The Whale is a thoughtful, philosophical, political and ultimately sad documentary that ponders the impulses behind, and advisability of, intense interaction between human beings and another smart species. What initially seems likely to be yet another touchy-feely animal doc ultimately charts some very murky water that forces the viewer to consider tricky ethical and practical issues that go beyond the normal reach of run-of-the-mill, kid-aimed nature films. Theatrical exposure will be very limited, but this Hollywood star-assisted re-do of a previously shown film should have a long swim in ancillary venues. Having already played Seattle and Tacoma, The Whale opens Sept. 23 in New York and in Los Angeles a week later.

Made by the husband-and-wife team of director Michael Parfit and producer Suzanne Chisholm, the earlier work was called Saving Luna, which won the Audience Choice award at the 2008 Santa Barbara Film Festival and went on the tour many other festivals. The following year, however, Eric Desatnik, founder of Yale's Environmental Film Festival, sensing greater potential in the piece, recruited then-married Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson to join him as executive producers, got the filmmakers to re-edit and add new footage, and had Reynolds speak the narration.

The center of attention here is Luna, a young orca who, at age two, for some reason became separated from his large family, “like a child in a supermarket,” and was stranded in Nootka Sound, an ultra-scenic area more than halfway up the west coast of Vancouver Island. Backed up by images of the black-and-white “killer whale” cavorting, showing off and constantly begging for attention, Reynolds unassumingly informs that Orcas, who have about the same life spans as humans, are very social beings that spend their whole lives in extended family groups. In other words, unless he can somehow rejoin his pod, Luna will have to make do with human contact.

Early footage of L98 -- Luna's case name -- snuggling up to boats, making noises and inviting eager humans to pet him and even feel his tongue shows him to be as friendly and irresistible as a big dog and probably a lot smarter. The commentary touches on how speculation about human contact with other species has focused far more on possible communication with aliens from another world than with other species on Earth or in the sea, as well as on our tendency to anthropomorphize such mammals as whales, to presume that they have “a fully conscious life.”

These considerations set the stage for what became a protracted, frustrating, at times infuriating “tug-of-whale” between whale lovers, bureaucratic do-gooders, First Nation tribal interests and local fisherman, loggers and boating enthusiasts. Although Luna has been seen to court human attention even more than the other way around, government officials—bluntly described as “idealistic women” who come off as “We know better” types representative of one's worst nightmare of a nanny state—announce that people should stay away from Luna and not even look at him. Henceforth, there will be a $100,000 fine for touching the animal and a grandmother is actually hauled into Canadian court for this offense, legally defined as “disturbing a whale.” A noted whale researcher offers to lead Luna back to his family at his own expense but even this offer is rejected, as it would involve “further interaction with the whale.”

Once the case becomes something of an international cause celebre, however, a re-uniting effort is mounted but doesn't work. Also entering the fray is a local Native American tribe that believes Luna is the reincarnation of its late chief and thinks nature should take its course. On the other hand, some locals consider the friendly critter a menace to boating and fear mounts that someone could take the matter into his own hands.

Eventually, the hoo-ha dies down a bit and Luna is more or less left to his own devices. But the issue still lingers, as almost everyone involved, including the once-so-certain government functionaries, feels there's something to be learned from this whole knotty episode, even if they're not sure what it is. Filmmaker Parfit becomes a significant participant in the final stretch leading to the startling, sobering climax, which retrospectively clarifies one basic issue but leaves the well-developed questions of human-animal interrelations full of nuance and uncertainty.

The stunning scenery, well-composed and (for boat-and-water-based work) exceptionally steady photography and Luna's sheer charisma make The Whale very watchable. Reynolds' narration is smooth and well-judged for this documentary, which was made in conjunction with Telefilm Canada and CBC News World.

Opens: Sept. 23 (Paladin)
Production: Mountainside Films
Narrator: Ryan Reynolds
Director: Michael Parfit
Producer: Suzanne Chisholm
Executive producers: Ryan Reynolds, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Desatnik
Editor: Michael Parfit
Music: David Parfit, Tobin Stoke
G rating, 85 minutes