So far as nature documentaries go, Born To Be Wild
is about as straightforward as they come: there are the requisite nods to conservationism and doing our best to save endangered species, etc., etc., but for the most part, director David Lickley is content to serve up endless shots of adorable baby elephants and orangutans doing what they do best: being adorable. It’s nature tourism done lite, designed to be something you can wow your kids with without having them cry at images of poached elephants or dead orangutans, but if that’s its aim, it succeeds grandly.
Guided by the always-elegant narration of Morgan Freeman
, we learn about Birute Galdikas
and Daphne Sheldrick
, elderly women who have devoted their lives to opening shelters for orphaned elephants (in Kenya
) and orangutans (in Borneo). The elephants, you see, often find themselves orphaned by the onset of poachers, while the orangutans have seen their natural rain forest habitat encroached on by loggers. Without a mother to care for them or provide milk (elephants are apparently reliant on milk until they’re six or seven years old), the young are doomed to a short life, until, that is, they’re rescued and brought to one of the two reservations highlighted in the film.
After that introduction, we’re treated to a brief look (the film’s running time is only 40 minutes, again perfectly suited to antsy children) at how the two shelters work and how the workers there attempt to act as surrogate mothers for two species that aren’t exactly suited to living alongside humanity. The dangers of domestication surely must be severe, as all of the animals are intended to be released back into the wild when they reach maturity; the orangutans spend a fair amount of time in a jungle gym, learning to swing around on ropes and tires intended to mimic their natural landscape, while the elephants are kept occupied at all times, with caretakers even assigned to sleep in the same rooms with them.
The narration of the film is arguably its weakest aspect: Freeman slides right into his script with all the smoothness of a man who’s been doing this for years, but the narration of Galdikas and Sheldrick feels much more stilted, as if they were reading someone else’s words instead of relating their own experiences. The film is much stronger when Lickley simply omits narration and lets the animals speak for themselves; he chooses numerous long takes and slow zooms and pans to focus on their candid behavior, which is often heartbreakingly cute. Watching an orangutan trying to drink two bottles of milk at the same time and pouring most of it all over his belly, or seeing a herd of older orphaned elephants returning from the wild to greet a new group of younger males who are learning to live on their own, made more of an impression on me than most of the spoken factoids did.
The slow camera movements also help reinforce the startlingly realistic 3D effects. As someone who needs glasses to watch films, I often find 3D films to be a bit more of a chore than the average filmgoer, but the slow camera movements here made it much easier to appreciate the visuals; it’s an obvious cliche to say that, at times, I felt like I could reach out and grab some elephant snout, but in the film’s best shots it’s almost true. It’s not entirely perfect, of course, and there’s a bit of eye-straining blurriness when creatures get very close to the camera, but it’s still easy to call this the best use of 3D in a film that I’ve yet seen (although that's obviously not saying much).
Less successful is Born To Be Wild
’s attempts, or lack thereof, at being a call to action. For a film about orphaned animals, it doesn’t dwell on the issues that caused them to become orphans; there’s a few mentions of poachers and a shot of a tree being chopped down to illustrate deforestation, but apart from that, it’s mostly cute animals being cute. That’s a welcome break from the sometimes preachy tone of nature documentaries, but you’d expect at least a link to a website where you could learn more about the problems facing these animals or donate some money to the shelters, which can’t be cheap to run. It’s understandable that the filmmakers would want to focus on positivity, but the elision of any of the more realistic facts regarding why these animals are in shelters feels as if they were dodging bigger issues.
With its short runtime, combined with pricey IMAX 3D ticket prices, Born To Be Wild
is an expensive proposition as family entertainment, if one that is easily entertaining to audiences of any age. Even though it settles for being an opportunity to ogle adorable baby animals for 40 minutes, rather than a more somber look at the extinction that they’re threatened with, the animals are, indeed, amazingly cute. Whether or not that’s enough to draw you out to the theater is something you’ll have to decide for yourself, but if you’re on the fence, Born To Be Wild
is also recommendable as a reminder that, despite Hollywood's best efforts to ruin it with post-conversions, 3D filmmaking does have a lot of potential when used correctly.