Blackfish


Tilikum performing.

Tilikum performing.

(2013) Documentary (Magnolia) Tilikum, Samantha Berg, Dave Duffus, Dean Gomersall, John Hargrove, Carol Ray, Jeffrey Ventre, Kim Ashdown, Dawn Brancheau, Daniel Patrick Dukes, Ken Balcomb, Howard Garrett, Keltie Burns. Directed by Gabrielle Cowperthwaite

Children are for the most part fascinated by the animal world. Animal parks like SeaWorld and Animal Kingdom as well as traditional zoos and aquariums are well aware of it – the animals on display in these parks are siren calls to kids and their parents. Performing animals can bring oohs and aahs to kids of all ages.

However on February 24, 2010 things got serious. SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, one of the most respected and safety-conscious trainers in the business, was killed in an incident during a “Dine with Shamu” performance at SeaWorld Orlando. The incident involved Tilikum, an orca (popularly known as a killer whale) who was one of SeaWorld’s mainstays and a veteran performer.

As time went by, there began to be questions asked about SeaWorld’s policies. One of the first facts to come out was that this was the third human death that Tilikum had been involved with; one involving trainer Keltie Burns in Sealand of the Pacific where Tilikum had been brought as a young whale and then later a bizarre incident when Daniel Patrick Dukes apparently entered Tilikum’s tank illegally after hours and was found the next morning naked and draped across Tilikum’s back.

Filmmaker Cowperthwaite examines Tilikum’s story from the time he was taken from his family as a young whale until the incident with Brancheau and its aftermath. She interviews a number of former SeaWorld trainers as well as orca experts to discuss behaviors of orcas both in the wild and in captivity. She also looks at several incidents in which trainers were injured or killed, including a particularly gruesome incident at Parque Loro in the Canary Islands.

It is clear that there is an agenda here as there is with most documentary films. Cowperthwaite’s point is that the captivity of these animals is inherently wrong and inhumane and that the motivations for SeaWorld and parks like it is profit rather than the education and appreciation of those animals. While I think that there is room for argument there, there’s no doubt that SeaWorld does make plenty of profit through park admissions and merchandise sale with the visage of the orca Shamu being essentially SeaWorld’s corporate identity.

SeaWorld in fact has gone to great pains to portray themselves as good corporate citizens and it is true that they have a rehabilitation program that has helped over 22,000 injured, orphaned or abandoned animals in the wild and nursed them back to health for re-release in many cases or permanently cared for those that were deemed unfit to sustain themselves in their native habitats. They have also contributed to and encouraged contributions to conservation causes and preach respect and care for the animals that they display. These are points not brought up in the movie.

However, it is also true that SeaWorld hid from their trainers Tilikum’s dangerous past and his part in the death of Keltie Burns. It is also true that they have misrepresented the life spans of orcas in the wild vs. orcas in SeaWorld’s care (studies show they do live longer in the wild, contrary to SeaWorld’s claims). SeaWorld has an interest in maintaining their image in that the perception of cruelty or inhumanity might adversely affect their bottom line, so their willingness to go to great lengths to preserve that image is at least understandable.

In the case of Dawn Brancheau, OSHA stepped in to litigate against SeaWorld, accusing them of violations of safety standards. SeaWorld denied those allegations and defended themselves vigorously (testimony from the trial is presented in the film). OSHA did eventually win the case although it is currently being appealed. This is why if you visit any SeaWorld park, you won’t see the trainers directly in the water with the orcas; there is a barrier between them. SeaWorld’s allegations that Brancheau was dragged into the water by her ponytail wasn’t proven; it also seemed to me (although the filmmakers didn’t say so outright) that given how many cameras are stationed throughout SeaWorld that if the footage had shown without a doubt that the ponytail was the culprit, they would have brought that footage to court. Since they didn’t, we have to assume that the footage showed otherwise. Certainly the eyewitnesses to the event were clear that Tilikum had grabbed Ms. Brancheau’s arm and dragged her into the pool.

For my part, I’ve always wondered what the allure is in trained animal shows. Maybe I’m just weird but I always get more of a charge watching an animal in its native environment doing the things it does naturally. The shots of orcas swimming in waters off the coasts of Washington state peacefully and majestically was far more thrilling to me than watching one cruise around a tank waving a fluke at the audience. However it is undeniable that the audiences in the footage looked awfully thrilled at the various behaviors of the orcas here.

Cowperthwaite’s assertion that the deaths depicted here were essentially the results of psychosis largely brought about by captivity is well-presented and certainly backed up by the experts she brings in. I would have like to hear some dissenting opinions, although there was one ex-trainer who did seemingly disagree with the filmmaker’s conclusions. Still, we are told that there are no records of an orca killing a human in the wild which is misleading – there have been attacks on humans in the wild although no fatalities have been recorded which doesn’t necessarily mean that none have occurred.

The documentary is a compelling one and the love and respect for the animals is clear in both the filmmakers and the scientists and former trainers that are interviewed. There’s no doubt that the orca is a magnificent creature, graceful and gentle but capable of great power and violence. We have our own human history to refer to when discussing the adverse affects of  being taken out of one’s natural environment and placed forcibly and without permission in an alien and strange environment, separated from all that one loved. That’s not a recipe for harmony and love. While the movie may not necessarily make fans of SeaWorld think differently about the animal shows, hopefully it will give everyone pause to think about the high price that entertainment can sometimes cost.

REASONS TO GO: Communicates the trainers and filmmakers love for these animals. Some beautiful footage of orcas.

REASONS TO STAY: No rebuttal viewpoints (although SeaWorld declined to allow their executives to be interviewed for the film).

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the subject matter and images are far too intense and disturbing for Shamu’s target audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The ending of the upcoming sequel to Finding Nemo was altered after Pixar executives viewed this film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cove

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Baghead

Advertisements

Happy Feet


Happy Feet

Mumble (the big penguin, center) and friends get a glimpse of a whole new world, except that phrase is owned by Disney so they can't use it. They can't use "circle of life" for the same reason. Damn that mouse!

(2006) (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Robin Williams, Elijah Wood, Nicole Kidman, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, Hugo Weaving, Magda Szubanski, Miriam Margolyes, Anthony LaPaglia, Chrissie Hynde, Steve Irwin, E.G. Daily.  Directed by George Miller

If there’s anything I learned from the documentary March of the Penguins is that it sucks to be a penguin. I’m not sure after seeing this that director George Miller didn’t get the same impression that I did.

It is said that emperor penguins have a heartsong, something that comes from so deep inside them that it conveys the essence of who they are. They use their heartsong to find a mate whose heartsong resonates with their own, creating a brand new harmony that is timeless and eternal.

Norma Jean (Kidman) is searching for the penguin with the right heartsong. While there are plenty of suitors for the gorgeous young female, only one – the somewhat unique Memphis (Jackman) catches her ear. Together they make a baby. Well, they lay an egg anyway.

The cardinal rule of antarctic egg-siting is “don’t drop the egg.” While Norma Jean is off gathering fish for her husband and unhatched child, Memphis does just that. It’s just a quick little thing and immediately picked up and set back where it belongs, but Memphis is worried that he has killed the life inside the egg with his own clumsiness.

Hatching day comes and eggs all over the ice floe are releasing cute, fuzzy little chicks, but not the egg of Memphis and Norma Jean. Memphis is just about to give up when there is some movement. First one foot pokes out, then the other. At last, a cute little ball of fluff emerges, but to the horror of Memphis, he does this shaky-foot dance. “Stop that son,” he says in his best Elvis drawl, “that’s not penguin!”

However, as his son, named Mumble (Daily) grows up and goes to chick school, the happy feet dance continues. And, to the horror of everyone in his class, Mumble can’t sing a note. All he can do is shriek. His affronted teacher, Miss Viola (Szubanski) sends him to the best vocal teacher in Antarctica, the matronly Mrs. Astrakhan (Margolyes). She has never failed to develop a chick’s voice yet, but Mumble’s proves to be the first. He becomes an object of ridicule and scorn, although his kind heart and generous spirit catches the notice of Gloria (Murphy) and as he grows up into a young man (Wood), her beauty and song (she’s the best singer in the great white South) catches his notice as well.

He is prevented from graduating with the rest of his class by the elder of the tribe, Noah (Weaving) but he goes out fishing with them anyway. After all, fish is becoming more and more scarce and with all the predators out there – bull seals, killer whales and such – it’s awfully tough for a penguin to find a good meal. Still, Mumble proves to be a good fishcatcher, despite the best efforts of slovenly skua (a seabird) Boss (LaPaglia) to steal Mumble’s fish away. However, seeing that Gloria didn’t catch one, he gives her his. 

However, more and more he is finding it easier to communicate with his feet rather than with his song, and as his moves begin to catch on, the elders – fearing that his blasphemy has caused the Great Provider from giving them fish – cast him out. He hooks up with Ramon (Williams), a homeboy of the adelie penguins and leader of the Adelie Amigos, who admires his moves. For the first time, Mumble has found someone who thinks he’s cool. 

Mumble decides to seek the advice of the great oracle Lovelace, who has a plastic six-pack ring around his neck, to discover why the fish are growing more scarce, but Lovelace has no answer. Eventually, it turns out that Lovelace is slowly choking to death because of the plastic ring. Mumble determines to go to the Forbidden Coast to find the answers and save Lovelace as well as the rest of the penguins. 

With CGI animated features becoming more and more commonplace, it requires much more than spectacular animation to get me to recommend one, and frankly, while this is as well-animated as the Pixar movies, it just doesn’t have the heart, the soul or the story to compete with the creme de la creme of CGI filmmakers. This is very standard stuff about an outcast who finds his own individuality and through his/her courage gains acceptance from the rest of his/her community. While there are certainly ecologically sound subtexts to be found here, that is not the main focus of the story, and perhaps it should have been. 

I have no quibble with the voice acting jobs – there is a stellar cast here, and they wisely lean on genre veteran Williams for three seperate roles, all of which are entertaining and completely different from one another. However, the characters are essentially bland types who don’t really add any freshness to the genre. Let’s face it – we’ve seen about all of the outcasts I can handle in CGI movies, from Boog and Elliott in Open Season to D.J. and Chowder in Monster House.

We’ve seen the traditional animation go the way of the silent movie and watched as CGI movies take over. One of the things that killed traditional animation (along with the prohibitive cost and time-intensive labor and creating them) is that the studios – particularly Disney – stopped paying attention to story and became more concerned with creating characters that were marketable for their theme parks and merchandise. Pixar, on the other hand, gets it – to create timeless classic animation, you must first start with a timeless, classic story. Once they find a good story to tell, the animation comes afterwards. Audiences respond to this and that’s why they create hit after hit.

Yes, Happy Feet did great box office, but honestly, who will remember it five years from now, or even two hours after you leave the theater. There is more to animated movies than this and while there are enough good features to give this a mild recommendation, quite frankly I’m beginning to get a bit burned out on the genre.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellent vocal cast and some standout animation, nearly as good as Pixar’s best.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A standard animated feature plotline about outsiders banding together to make good. *yawn*

FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly rude humor and a bit of peril but nothing too difficult except for the littlest of kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Naturalist Steve Irwin provided the voice of an elephant seal shortly before his untimely death. He had also provided the voice of an albatross for a scene that was cut from the film before it was animated; the scene was animated afterwards for the DVD release as a tribute to Irwin.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: In addition to the aforementioned Irwin scene, there is also a classic Warner Brothrs animated short whose plot is alarmingly similar to this movie and a couple of music videos. There is also a featurette showing Savion Glover’s tap dance routine being recorded on motion capture for use in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $384.3M on a $100 production budget; the film was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Miracle Match