Sunday, April 3, 2016

Animals Make Better People Than People: The Whale

The Good: Good photography, Engaging narrative
The Bad: Pacing, Sound issues (works better with subtitles on!)
The Basics: The Whale tells a surprisingly compelling story that explores multiple sides to an orca that was separated from his pod and became unnaturally engaged with humans.

My wife is definitely the documentary fan in the family. I got into documentaries that were primarily political, starting with Fahrenheit 9/11 (reviewed here!) and I had a phase where I was very interested in documentary films. My wife, however, is a big fan of documentaries. When I asked her for a recommendation today for a documentary to watch, she recommended The Whale.

The Whale is a seemingly straightforward documentary about an Orca that was separated from his pod in Canada. The nature documentary explores the effect of a single orca whale on a community as they fall in love with, fight for, and then abandon the friendly Luna.

Scientists documented the birth of an Orca Whale - L98 - in Canada and he was quickly nicknamed Luna. One day in Mooyah Bay, Luna got separated from his pod and abandoned. Shortly thereafter, locals on boats in Nootka Sound soon noticed Luna around constantly. Luna showed interest in contact with the humans who passed through Nootka Sound, even though he would call out underwater to try to find other Orcas or his own pod. When none responded to his call, the locals in Nootka Sound began to regularly interact with Luna - playing with him, petting him, even letting him work around the logging operations on the water.

The local native population, the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation, saw Luna as a reincarnation of their recently-deceased Chief. Members of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation saw it as a right to interact with Luna given they felt a spiritual connection to him. When Luna turned three years old, scientists became concerned about Luna's long-term health. They enacted a Stewardship program whereby a group of people stayed out on the water constantly driving humans away from him. But their efforts run into serious problems, ranging from people risking the $100,000 fine to the Stewards giving Luna inadvertent attention. Luna makes it hard for the citizens, as he tried desperately to interact with people and animals on boats. When Luna started to interact with float planes, immense political pressure was made to reunite Luna with his pod, 200 miles away. This sparks a conflict between Fisheries and the local natives over what is best for the social orca.

The Whale very smartly deals with the potential anthropomorphic feelings the residents of Nootka Sound and the scientists had when interacting with Luna. By very quickly eliminating the argument that Luna wanted contact with humans for food, the film establishes a surprisingly firm argument that Luna wanted human contact for companionship and affection, as opposed to meeting some physical need.

The documentary was shot over the course of several years and while much of it is unremarkable over-the-water shots, some of the photography is good underwater shots of both Luna and boats that he was interacting with. The story is instantly engaging, but it begins to drag and get somewhat repetitive in its final third. With so much emotional tension built up over the first two-thirds of the film, the viewer becomes eager to some sense of resolution to Luna's story and the conflicts involved in how various factions want to deal with the orca. Unfortunately, when resolution is reached it is - predictably, given the nature of so many documentaries - tragic and it is hard for viewers not to feel a sense of betrayal.

Ryan Reynolds does an excellent job narrating The Whale and he infuses some of his humor to his voice and some of the lines.

Ultimately, The Whale is an interesting exploration of a seemingly unique phenomenon and individual that makes it hard for everyone who watches it not to become an animal lover.

For other documentaries, please check out my reviews of:
I Know That Voice
Done The Impossible: The Fans' Tale Of "Firefly" And "Serenity"


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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