Perhaps it’s somewhat wrong to be suspicious about a movie featuring elephants and orangutans, but then IMAX Born to Be Wild 3D is 40 minutes in length, narrated by Morgan Freeman, and feels the need to announce its film format in the title. Now I like Morgan Freeman and I like animals. But nothing says We Take No Chances more than this cinematic configuration. The formula is perfectly calculated to persuade families to part with their hard-earned dollars. And perhaps the responsible thing to do is condemn the film from some strenuous anti-consumerist stance. On the other hand, I cannot deny the inherent soft spot within my otherwise no-bullshit psyche. Let’s face the facts. Outside of the regrettable fact that Hitler liked dogs, you’d have to be a complete sociopath or a total asshole not to love animals in some way. So the real question we must ask is whether IMAX Born to Be Wild 3D captures the mammals released from captivity into the Kenyan Savannah and the Borneo rainforests in an informative and helpful way.
Because this is 3D, we see elephant trunks curling in our direction, but not close enough to cause alarm. An orangutan’s hindlegs wrap around the bottom end of a bottle. Cute! But while the orangutan is mostly a fruit eater (a fact one doesn’t learn from watching this movie), one is left to ponder the possible physical harm to others, should the orangutan have an empty stomach. When the animals lope across logs or frolic in rufous terrain, the 3D captures the details quite well. Unfortunately, since 3D requires considerable visual definition, the efforts to capture Discovery Channel-style imagery don’t always work. There is one moment when an orangutan swings in slow motion. It should be breathtaking. But because there is so much movement, the orangutan dissolves into a blotchy amalgam of squares – reminiscent to a DVD skipping – once it has reached camera left. I am pretty certain that this phenomenon would not occur in the real world. Later in the film, a troublesome fly enters the frame and it destroys the “natural” moment. Perhaps these 3D deficiencies had something to do with the Lincoln Square IMAX theater I was sitting in. Yet I did see Avatar at the same theater and experienced no such problems.
Some of the feeders wear bright orange coats and the milk guzzled down by the cute orangutans is in green bottles. One gets the feeling that the filmmakers called Todd Haynes’s set decorator just before the camera started rolling. Then again, it could just be the film stock.
I must confess that my inner skeptic scoffed at some of the reductionist hand-holding: “As long as [the orangutans] feel loved, they will have the confidence they need later in life.” Love can help you in life through any number of ways, but it’s not necessarily the best method to ward off a predator who wishes to have you for lunch. We are also informed that the orangutans “can read your heart and they will understand you.” Well, if you’re providing free food and an open terrain, that will certainly be the general impression that you get from an animal. On the other hand, I’m certainly not an orangutan, but I assure you that I can read the heart and understand the soul of anyone buying me at least than two drinks in a single sitting.
There is a moment midway through the film in which Morgan Freeman’s avuncular voice attempts to wrap an absurdly sunny bow on a disturbing moment. An elephant, who has seen one of his family members butchered by humans, storms around his pen when more benevolent humans (or so the filmmakers lead us to believe) attempt to tame him. We are assured that once the elephant receives “a thorough checkup,” he will be good to go. Who knew that the pachyderm equivalent of PTSD was so swiftly resolved? Do animals have emotional consciousness? That’s a question for a more involved essay than this one. But since the traumatized elephant is presented shortly after we are informed that an elephant has an amazing power of perception and a remarkable memory, I can foresee an especially inquisitive child, once they have connected the dots, unleashing a barrage of disturbing questions. Parents, you have been warned.
I’m probably making IMAX Born to Be Wild 3D sound worse than it is. The film is quite pleasant, a mostly sufficient method to blow wads of twenties on the kids, provided you understand that it doesn’t serve as a substitute for education or even edutainment. Still, for all the “nuanced animal behavior” that the press notes describes, I would have preferred a nuanced animal narrative. They are, after all, an indelible part of our existence.