The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52


The deep blue.

(2021) Nature Documentary (Bleecker Street) Joseph George, Joshua Zeman, John Hildebrand, John Calambokidis, Christopher W. Clark, Ana Sirovic, Bill Watkins, David Rothenberg, Bruce Mate, Daniel Palacios, Robert Dziak, Vinal Virga, Kate Micucci, Cate Muret. Directed by Joshua Zeman

 

In 1989 as the Cold War came to an end, technology used to monitor Soviet submarine movement detected something unusual; whale song on the 52 Hz range, much higher than what whales normally communicate on. Marine biologist Bill Watkins tracked the sound for some fifteen years afterwards, noting that the sound came from a single whale with nary a reply.

After a 2004 New York Times article, the imagination of the public was captured. While scientists wondered if this might signal the existence of a heretofore undiscovered species of whale, the public began to see 52, as it was popularly known, as a symbol for the increasing isolation people were feeling in these tech-savvy times, and celebrating their own uniqueness. Artwork, songs, essays and even tattoos were generated by folks who were captivated by the story of a cetacean, endlessly searching the ocean, calling out and waiting for a response that never came.

Few were as captivated as documentary filmmaker Joshua Zeman (Cropsey) who wanted to find 52, which as one scientist put it, “finding a needle in a haystack would have considerably better odds.” He put together a campaign to fund an expedition, but could only raise enough for an expedition for seven days.

The film chronicles the expedition, and adds quite a bit of background material, ranging from the effect of giant container ships on whales (their passing through the shipping lanes creates a kind of noise pollution that makes it nearly impossible fo the whales, who rely on sonar, to communicate) to the ravages of the whaling industry (not for the faint of heat or weak of stomach) and the effect of 52 on popular culture. Comedian Kate Micucci contributes a song, and perhaps most compelling of all, musician David Rothenberg jams with the whales on clarinet.

Overall the movie is a bit disjointed. The story flow just isn’t there as Zeman goes off on tangents that at times feel like filler. The best parts of the movie, other than Rothenberg’s “jam sessions,” is watching the scientists go about their business, and their excitement at the prospect of finding the answer to a question that previously had none. You might want to watch the movie all the way to the end – there is a graceful coda that is uplifting and might just put a smile on your face.

We have a tendency to anthropomorphize animals, even those in the animal protection business can sometimes attribute emotions to animals that they may or may not be able to feel. There’s no way to truly know if 52 feels loneliness; what does he/she have to compare it with, after all? But be that as it may, this is a truly fascinating documentary that is well worth the visit.

The movie is currently in theaters, but will be available on most major streaming platforms beginning Friday July 16th.

REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating and uplifting. Always interesting to watch scientists in their element.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not presented in a really organized manner.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some upsetting animal cruelty images and brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leonardo di Caprio, who contributed $50,000, was given credit as an executive producer. Much of the rest of the funding came from a Kickstarter campaign.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Lions
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Chimera Strain

Dolphin Kick


I don’t know what that kid said but that dolphin wants to kick his butt.

(2019) Family (Epic) Tyler Jade Nixon, Axle McCoy, Travis McCoy, Alexis Louder, DeVaughn Gow, Tim Ogletree, LaVaughan Hamilton, Maya Simmons, Quddus Newton, Tomli Culver, Jordan Pedreira, Erin Reign, Matthew Scott Miller, Barry Askham, Ana-Alicia Carroll, Dwayne Shockley, Frank Salas Jr., Myron Roberts, Carson Doll, Ryan Gonzalez. Directed by Philip Marlatt

 

I suppose that it could be said that of all the creatures on this green earth, the dolphin is probably the most intelligent. Certainly they have the ability to communicate and to learn. They have complex social structures within their pods. It also could be said that if it weren’t for family movies and Sea World they might just be more intelligent than humans.

Clint (T. McCoy) is grieving. His vivacious wife recently passed away and both of his kids – sunny Skyler (Nixon) and her older brother Luke (A. McCoy) are both devastated in their own way. While Skyler who in most ways seems like her late mom seems to be ready to move on, Luke remains introspective. Once an avid swimmer like his mother, he has refused to put so much as a toe into the water since his mom died.

What this kind of tragedy calls for is – a family vacation in an island paradise and not just any island paradise – the one here Mom and Dad got married on. Luke is about as excited to go as a cat would be to a rocking chair convention but he puts a stiff upper lip on and off he and his sister go with Dad bravely leading the way.

At first Skyler is entranced; the island is beautiful, tropical and the family has rented a gorgeous house on the sea. They’ve also rented a boat…and with the house apparently comes a dolphin who strikes up a friendship with the desolate Luke.

At first Luke is terrified of the cetacean but eventually begins to accept him, naming the dolphin “Echo” – and even to rely on him. As Dad makes friends with a group of marine biology students, particularly the smart and sassy Nova (Louder), the group of students is excited about the bond that Luke has made with the playful Echo. However, reality intrudes; Echo needs a pod and finding him one won’t be an easy task.

In the meantime surly fisherman Naz (Gow) has noticed that the lines to his buoys have been cut and he suspects a rival fisherman to be the culprit. But as the sabotage begins to spread to the other fishermen on the island Naz and his first mate Moe (Hamilton) realize that the lines haven’t been cut so much as chewed through and the logical culprit is the playful dolphin who has grown fond of playing fetch with stray buoys. Naz determines that in order for the fishermen to be able to retain their livelihood, Echo is going to need to meet up with an “accident.”

As family movies go this one is fairly harmless and even has some lovely underwater photography to boot. While Echo is partly rendered in CGI, there are plenty of practical effects as well. While the setting is a beautiful Caribbean island, the movie was actually filmed in Louisiana, specifically in the tropical paradise of Slidell. Talk about Hollywood magic, right?

Travis McCoy as the dad has lots of charisma and could have a good career ahead of him playing the “hot dad” if he so chooses. The kids are about as annoying and precocious as is standard with a family film and the juvenile actors who play them actually do a pretty credible job without feeling too forced, a common mistake with young actors. Kudos for that which is also a function of how the director handles them, so that’s to the plus side for Marlatt.

My issue though is that if feels like they got the overall tone of the family wrong. My understanding from the film is that the death of the mom was a fairly recent event. Only Luke displays any sort of melancholia that would be associated with grieving. Young Skyler has moments where something reminds her of her mom but these are fleeting and most of the time, she seems to be incredibly bubbly and positive. The husband who is now tasked with raising two kids by himself, almost never seems to show any sort of feeling one way or the other about his late wife. I think it would be a healthy thing for kids to see that daddies and mommies grieve too.

Other than that this is basic family film 101 with a likable dolphin who is apt to leap above the waves at any given moment, a pair of precious but precocious kids, ecologically committed young people and villains who really aren’t all bad a’tall. While I don’t think that a theatrical release is in the cards for this one, it is already available on most of the major streaming services and on DVD as well – it’s even region free so you can play it no matter where you are. If you have a kid or two who are into the ocean in a big way (and dolphins in a bigger way) and you’ve worn out your copies of Dolphin Tale and Free Willy, this might just be what your family needs.

REASONS TO GO: The kids will love this, particularly those who love animals or the ocean (especially dolphins).
REASONS TO STAY: Being kid-friendly doesn’t have to mean the movie is predictable and formulaic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dolphin Kick is the first screen credit for young Axle McCoy.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dolphin Tale
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Final Wish