One needn’t tarry too long over “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar,” an Imax nature documentary that recalls the old Disney live-action outdoor shorts of the 1950s. Beautifully shot, with 3D an added bonus, it’s precisely the sort of environmentally-conscious piece this venue has provided before, and apart from one element it’s a thoroughly likable, though hardly overwhelming, travelogue.
The success of the DreamWorks series of “Madagascar” features and the cable TV series that followed upon them have, of course, made lemurs the new penguins in terms of cuddle factor. And while the ones captured on film here don’t sing the way Sacha Baron Cohen’s crew did, we do see them swinging from tree to tree and—in the case of one group—doing their characteristic jumping-jack dance. The purpose of the 40-minute picture—narrated, almost inevitably, by the sonorous Morgan Freeman—is, however, to be educational as well as entertaining. It aims to inform the audience about the danger of extinction that faces the lemurs on Madagascar, the only place in the world where they’re found, as a result of human encroachment, and implicitly to encourage activism on their behalf.
And so after a brief history lesson—explaining how lemurs arrived on the uninhabited island as castaways from Africa some sixty million years ago and flourished there, evolving into a variety of species—writer Drew Fellman and director David Douglas turn to the present, introducing Patricia C. Wright, a primatologist at Stony Brook University who has devoted her life to the study of the lemurs and been instrumental in trying to secure safe havens for them in Madagascar. The problem, as she explains, began with the arrival of humans, whose practice of deforestation through fire has gradually reduced the areas where the lemurs can survive to relatively small pockets of wilderness.
The film follows Wright, whose efforts were instrumental in encouraging the establishment of a protected rainforest and who has worked on site not only to locate species presumed to be extinct but, as one episode recorded here shows, to bring members of endangered species together to increase the population. Other scientists are shown studying the animals—most notably the tiny mouse lemurs—in their labs before releasing them back into the forest, a process that Freeman describes as analogous to tales of human abduction by aliens. Note is also taken of progressive ideas about conservation among the local villagers, particularly the young, whose awareness about the plight of the lemurs has led them in turn to educate their elders about the need to protect them.
For all the information the film offers, however, it’s likely that viewers will most appreciate the superb footage of lemurs in the wild that Douglas, also serving as cinematographer, shot and editor Beth Spiegel has expertly stitched together. Some of it—most notably that of ring-tailed lemurs in the rugged, craggy terrain they’ve adopted as a kind of natural fortress—is quite breathtaking, while other episodes, in which the animals appear to be as curious about humans as the scientists are about them, are less awesome but pleasant nonetheless.
The one contribution that’s questionable is the score by the usually dependable Mark Mothersbaugh, which is not only too busy but weirdly eclectic, using bits and pieces from sources as varied as Richard Strauss (the opening fanfare from “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” of course) to Cole Porter and beyond. One can appreciate the composer’s inclination to juice up the visuals, but here he’s overstepped.
“Island of Lemurs” doesn’t equal the pull of “March of the Penguins,” but like the critters in “Madagascar,” they can happily coexist.