As far as nature documentaries go, 2011's The Whale delves into issues that reach well beyond the "look at the cute penguins" stuff commonly seen on television.
Directed by journalists Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfitt, The Whale relives the joy and controversy that resulted when a playful orphaned killer whale appeared near a village on Canada's Western coast, and the efforts to reunite the stranded mammal with his family. While the film serves as a relatively straightforward chronicle of what happened, it also brings up some thorny questions dealing with humankind's interactions with animals - namely, when does helping out overlap into intrusion, and when should nature simply be allowed to run its course?
The events recounted in The Whale begin in summer 2001, when a young orca named Luna made its way into Nootka Sound, tucked away on the west coast of Canada's Vancouver Island. Since killer whales are highly socialized creatures who rarely venture away from family groups, Luna's solitary appearance was highly unusual. Although Luna wasn't starving or sick, the lack of interaction that other whales would have normally given the whale quickly came to be filled by the area's human population. In short order, Luna cuddled up to fishing and logging boats, then pleasure boats filled with locals who were amazed at how closely they could touch him (a brave few even stick their hands inside his mouth). While Luna's puppy dog-like eagerness to play endeared himself to the locals, biologists and government officials feared that the animal might get too adjusted to human contact, making efforts to return him to his pod even more difficult.
As awareness of Luna's plight grows throughout Canada, an outpouring of support emerges, often from the most unlikely places. The local Native tribe, believing that Luna's body has been inhabited by the soul of their recently deceased chief, throw their best efforts into keeping the whale healthy and safe. Monitors are employed to keep gawkers away from Luna, an only partially successful venture. While the seasons change and it becomes apparent - after two or three years - that Luna enjoys being in Nootka Sound (or perhaps he's forgotten that he's an orca?), a creeping sense of dread comes into play. Locals worry that he might never get back to his family or, even worse, he might get captured and sold to an aquarium. Of the utmost concern: the possibility that Luna might accidentally injure or kill someone, or inadvertently put himself in harm's way.
The Whale does a moderately good job of fairly presenting both sides of the issue, aided by some beautiful photography of the area. It didn't move me all that much, however, and the overwhelming impression I got was that it seemed too genteel and patchy. The film was actually reconstructed from an earlier documentary by Chisholm and Parfitt, Saving Luna, which played in Canadian theaters in 2007. While The Whale got tightened up slightly from the earlier film (shaving off seven minutes of footage), the most significant change between the two came with replacing much of Parfitt's crunchy-granola narration with voice-overs by actor Ryan Reynolds (who co-executive produced the film with his then-wife, Scarlett Johansson). Reynolds' confident and steady narration is a huge improvement - one can feel his involvement in the subject, since he grew up in the same region where Luna was stranded.
The Whale's DVD packaging includes an endorsement from esteemed film critic Ellen DeGeneres, who states that it's "an amazing movie - you must go see it." While I wouldn't go that far, the film is definitely worth renting for those in the market for a provocative, not necessarily happiness-inducing documentary.
Docurama Films' DVD edition of The Whale presents the film in nicely mastered 16:9 widescreen. Since this digitally shot film was assembled from a variety of sources, the picture quality varies from scene to scene. The bulk of it, however - interviews and nature footage of Nootka Sound - looks very good. Be aware that much of the footage of Luna dates from a decade or more ago, the decent looking but decidedly lesser-quality results of older digital and video equipment.
The Whale comes with a single stereo soundtrack (the package erroneously lists both stereo and 5.1 Surround) which is pleasantly mixed with clear dialogue and an unobtrusive music score. Subtitle options are also provided in English, Spanish and French.
Docurama's products usually contain a good amount of bonus material, and this disc is no exception. Discovering Luna's Family (11:27) has Ken Balcomb, senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research, discussing Luna's geneology in the program he and his colleagues have run for the past 35 yeras. In Respecting Whales (3:08), nature expert Kari Koski discusses how orcas like Luna's family can be viewed in their habitat without being disturbed. Songs for Luna assembles four eclectic videos and text bios from singers and musicians performing songs directly inspired by Luna. Five minutes of Deleted Scenes are also provided. Trailers for The Whale and its predecessor, Saving Luna, round out the extras.
In all honesty, reviewing a film like The Whale is difficult, since the filmmakers had the best intentions in mind in telling a story that, in all probability, should not have a happy outcome. The film sensitively deals with its subject - Luna, an adorable orca who got separated from his pod and became a Canadian media celebrity - in such a tentative, inconsistent way that it's also hard to fully endorse, however (Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man was a similar project that more successfully explored man and nature colliding). Those who favor their nature docs on the contemplative side would enjoy it, however. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.