Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Born to Be Wild: Sheltering the innocent

Born to Be Wild (2011) • View trailer for Born to Be Wild
Four stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang

Stories about orphans are guaranteed heart-tuggers, as has been long understood by every writer from Charles Dickens to John Irving.

And when it’s a true story drawn from our contemporary world ... well, pass the hankies and prepare for the snuffling.
The rules of "elephant soccer" are sketchy to begin with, but that doesn't really
matter anyway. As narrator Morgan Freeman notes, the baby elephants always
win ... no matter what.

In short, only a troglodyte with a heart of stone could fail to be moved by director David Lickley’s new IMAX documentary, Born to Be Wild. We’re probably fortunate that the film clocks in at a mere 40 minutes; I suspect more empathetic viewers would need to be sedated, if it ran much longer.

Lickley’s film, scripted by Drew Fellman, profiles two remarkable women on similar missions of mercy: Borneo-based primatologist Biruté Mary Galdikas, and Kenyan Daphne M. Sheldrick. Both have spent their lives rescuing, raising and rehabilitating orphans: orangutans and elephants, respectively.

Merely learning how these two women find their charges is heartbreaking; in almost every case, the young animals have been orphaned after their parents have been slaughtered by poachers. Many of the youngsters remain by the maimed bodies, unable to do anything else.

One baby elephant came into Sheldrick’s care with its tail missing, because the appendage was chewed off by hyenas tearing at the butchered adult’s carcass.

We’re only told of these grim events; thankfully, we never see the actual aftermath of such an attack. The closest we get to lingering trauma is one baby elephant that initially associates all human beings with the monsters who killed its mother, and therefore charges about in a blind panic, unable to realize that these people are trying to help it.

No, the more distressing details come solely from narrator Morgan Freeman, who delivers the same blend of warmth, awe and occasional reproach — directed at us viewers — that he brought to March of the Penguins.

Watching Galdikas and Sheldrick — and their equally compassionate staffs — care for these helpless creatures, it’s simply impossible to imagine the thuggish cruelty that led to their fate.

But I don’t wish to give the impression that Born to Be Wild is a depressing experience: far from it. Aside from being a celebration of our own finer instincts — proof positive that the world is filled with more than enough good people to compensate for the random evil of their brethren — this film is filled with joyous, wondrous and incredibly cute sequences.

Lickley — who helmed the earlier IMAX documentaries Bears and Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees — hits us right away, with a shot of a small elephant’s trunk poking its way over the top of a stall, followed moments later by the curious face of the adorable beast itself, hoisted up on hind legs in order to see what’s going on outside. Too darling for words.

Activities in the orangutan compound are no less charming, particularly since these creatures seem born to be natural clowns; their behavior invariably makes us laugh. (An intriguing phenomenon, that, since they don’t seem funny to each other.) Watching one young orangutan simultaneously drink from two formula-filled bottles — two sets of limbs with which to hold the containers, remember — is a testament both to ingenuity and a natural ability to amuse.

And intelligence, of course. Both elephants and orangutans, even as infants, are ferociously smart in ways that we still don’t understand. Elephants, in particular, are almost supernatural; one sequence toward the end of this film — an amazing “welcome to the pack” ritual — cannot fail to make your hair stand on end.

Sheldrick’s late husband, renowned conservationist David Sheldrick, was founding warden of Tsavo East in 1948, when the park was built from virgin bush. He and his wife lived there together for more than 20 years. After he died in 1977, Daphne Sheldrick established the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and, with the government’s permission, has been rescuing and caring for elephants ever since.

Since the trust’s inception, Sheldrick and her staff have hand-reared more than 130 orphaned elephants, in each case with the intention of preparing them for life back in the wild. Her staff members are equally devoted, and they need to be; elephants are pack animals, and the youngsters never are left alone. Thus, the keepers not only spend each day with their charges; they tuck the elephants in at night and sleep beside them, in their stalls.

It’s difficult to imagine anything more sobering or touching, and rest assured; Lickley goes for maximum emotional impact with a blanket-covered “lights out” shot.

Galdikas’ Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine opened in 1998 as a joint effort of Orangutan Foundation International and the Indonesian Forestry Department. The facility is staffed by full-time veterinarians and more than 130 local handlers who care for more than 300 orphan orangutans, separated into age groups. Many remain at the facility for several years, because orangutans in the wild don’t leave their mothers until they’re 8 years old.

The handlers become full-time surrogate parents, because baby orangutans must be held constantly. “Baby orangutans placed on the ground will not stop screaming,” Galdikas explains, in the film’s press notes. “They’re literally pulled of their dead mother’s body when they are rescued. They know no other place than in her arms or on her back.”

Not to worry: We never see this take place.

Cinematographer David Douglas was particularly charmed by the orangutans during this shoot, and one of the rescued infants was named after him.

“They’ll climb up on you and steal your glasses and pick your pocket, all at the same time,” he recalled, also in the press notes. “You’re completely outgunned. And they’re fast learners; they became like members of the crew. A number of times the gaffer would be holding one end of a reflector, we we’d look over and see an orangutan holding the other end.

“We even caught them trying to start the generators.”

(As I’ve commented more than once, when reviewing IMAX documentaries, it’s really a shame that copies of the equally informative and entertaining press notes aren’t handed to patrons at the door.)

Douglas’ lush camerawork is gorgeous, to say the least, and even more magnificent in IMAX 3D: whether vistas that encompass the wonderful environments where these animals are released, or tight close-ups that reveal complex, perceptive and mischievous elephant and orangutan faces.
Orangutans in the wild, solitary by nature, need plenty of territory to call their
own. Sadly, deforestation is destroying far too much natural habitat, and
primatologist Biruté Mary Galdikas knows all too well that her former charges
can't be prevented from straying beyond the boundaries of their safe reserve.

The film’s most sobering message is held to the very end, although by then we’ve already been told what Galdikas and Sheldrick have learned from experience: We cannot save these animals without also saving their physical environment. “It’s a dangerous world out there,” Galdikas says, as she watches two of her most recent charges happily take to the trees in the Seruyan Forest, part of the 1,200-square-mile Tanjun Putting game reserve and national park.

Freeman’s final bit of narration drives the point home: “Whether they survive,” he concludes, “depends on US.”

The clock also is running out on Galdikas and Sheldrick, both of whom qualify as senior citizens; what will happen when these two remarkable women die?

Nature documentaries are the most daring of high-wire balancing acts: Too many aren’t-they-adorable shots, and the message gets drowned beneath a cloying, syrupy tone; too many bleak statistics, and viewers go home depressed and overwhelmed, convinced the situation is too hopeless for intervention.

But it isn’t hopeless, of course, and individuals can and do make differences in our world, every day; look at the accomplishments of these two women, and the facilities they have nurtured with the same care granted their vulnerable charges. Lickley maintains the balance successfully, with a shrewd blend of educational insight and awe-inspiring photography.

And enough aw-shucks moments to allow these orphans to serve as their own best advocates: We cannot help adoring them, and wanting to help them.

Which is the point, of course.

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