Born to Be Wild, a 3-D IMAX nature documentary aimed squarely at family audiences, uses its immersive giant-screen 3-D to bring viewers directly into the rain forest of Borneo and the rugged landscapes of Kenya. Lately, 3-D movies have backed away from in-your-face intrusions into the theater, opting instead for a diorama-like approach with the screen as a window into a world beyond. I’m a fan of the diorama approach, but Born to Be Wild makes the case that a nature documentary in IMAX 3-D can and perhaps should bring us as close to the action as possible.
Part of the problem with in-your-face 3-D is that the effect is always undermined by the edge of the screen. With IMAX, there’s a lot more screen, and the edge is literally a more peripheral issue. It really is like being there. (I screened the film with my whole family, and 2½-year-old Catie, peering through giant 3-D glasses, kept her arm outstretched for much of the film, convinced that she would touch a leaf any moment. Whenever the camera panned, she asked excitedly, “Are we moving?”)
Morgan Freeman, whose voiceover narration helped make March of the Penguins a family hit, tells us that the story is “a fairy tale, except that it’s entirely true” and introduces the film’s “fairy godmothers,” a pair of little old ladies with no connection except that each is working tirelessly to rescue, rehabilitate and release the orphaned young of a local species: orangutans in Borneo, elephants in Kenya.
There’s no magic to the hard work and science of these “fairy godmothers.” Pioneering primatologist Dr. Biruté Galdikas, 64, and her team of 130 staff members at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine have saved more than 400 orphaned orangutans, while animal husbandry expert Dr. Daphne Sheldrick, 76, has trained more than 50 keepers at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, where 70-plus orphaned African elephants have been hand-reared to maturity. (You won’t learn all these particulars from the film, by the way. Nor are the filmmakers interested in practical details like who’s paying for all this.)
Although the animals are victims of human encroachment — the orangutans suffer from deforestation and dwindling environment, and the elephant calves have been orphaned by poachers — the film dispenses with these unpleasant realities with a few lines of narration. There are no exposé-style shots of logging crews and toppling trees or close encounters with ivory poachers. Instead, the emphasis is solidly on the adorable orphans — gangly-armed, half-naked, rusty-haired young orangutans; stumpy-legged, bristle-headed, short-trunked elephant calves — and their relationships with their human caregivers.
Like many IMAX films, Born to Be Wild is sweeping in scope and vision but slight in length, running a mere 40 minutes. That’s long enough to soak in the soaring aerial views and intimate close-ups and long enough to follow the story of a number of young orphans from rescue to release. The film is full of picturesque cuteness, from a heap of baby orangutans being transported by wheelbarrow to a press of young elephants joyously racing with their keepers on the savannah kicking a soccer ball.
The challenges in raising baby orangutans and elephants are strikingly different: Orangutans are solitary animals who are nevertheless highly dependent on their mothers for several years; they are also arboreal and must learn the tree-climbing skills that they will use in the wild. Elephants are social animals who need the community of the herd; calves also consume vast quantities of milk, or, in this case, a formula that took Sheldrick over a quarter century to perfect.
Once or twice the celebration of nature gets a little too rhapsodic. Galdikas, who has written a book called Reflections of Eden: My Years With the Orangutans of Borneo, rhapsodizes in the film about the Bornean rainforest as “the original Garden of Eden” left behind by humans but which the apes still inhabit. The film doesn’t develop the less paradisiacal side of orangutan behavior or of jungle life generally, but Galdikas’ book does. Then there’s an overenthusiastic line from Freeman about the Orangutan Care Center being “the one place on earth where humans and apes are equals.” No mention of orangutans caring for human orphans.
Really, Born to Be Wild is as much a celebration of the better side of human nature as of the natural world. In their own way, these ladies are carrying out the Edenic mandate given to Adam to take responsibility for creation, to tend the Garden and share in God’s providential oversight of the animal world (see Catechism 373). This labor is rewarded as we see older orphans of both species take their first steps into a larger world. In both cases, it’s a genuinely breathtaking moment.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content Advisory: Brief references to poachers and the trauma suffered by the young orphans. Fine family viewing.