News stories about wildlife returning to empty city streets and visitor-free parks has lifted many human spirits during the pandemic.
As wild animals retreat to trees and shadows with our eventual return, let’s remember our kinship with fellow earthly travelers. Here are some films (most, but not all, suitable for family viewing) to help.
“The Eagle Huntress” (Amazon, YouTube): Set in a visually mesmerizing Mongolia, this 2016 documentary follows a 13-year-old girl, Aisholpan, as she defies tradition by mastering the male-dominated craft of bonding with an eagle as a hunting partner. Just a regular kid while with friends, Aisholpan becomes a fearless warrior when accompanying her father over deadly mountain slopes and during competition against far more experienced hunters in an annual contest. With her sly smile and formidable spirit, Aisholpan is a joy and inspiration. Rated G; subtitled.
“Learning to See: The World of Insects” (Kanopy, YouTube, iTunes): In the early 1990s, American psychiatrist Robert Oelman moved to Colombia, where he began photographing the insect world of the Amazon rainforest, going deeper and deeper into the tropical jungle to capture remarkably sharp, close-up shots of thousands of insects, many previously unknown. Oelman laments the illegal logging that is decimating animal (including insect) species in the region, and “Learning to See” gives a viewer a sense of investment in his mission. Not rated (there are a few seconds, early in the film, of archival footage of drug-cartel victims, but otherwise this is for all ages).
“Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story” (iTunes, Amazon, YouTube): Actress Ashley Bell (“The Last Exorcism”) directed this emotionally charged documentary about the sad state of the Asian elephant, whose population is less than 50,000. Bell captures life at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, eventually focusing on the rescue of a nearly blind, 70-year-old elephant from a company selling rides atop the overstressed, bewildered creature for decades. Bell is unsparing in her footage of the prolonged torment of a captured elephant driven to submission for human profit. Despite that horror, the film ultimately captures a stirring connection between fellow mammals. Not rated (mature audiences).
“Never Cry Wolf” and “Duma” (YouTube, Amazon, iTunes): This double bill of films by Carroll Ballard (“The Black Stallion”), both based on real events, speaks to different notions of close ties between people and wild animals. The 1983 “Never Cry Wolf,” inspired by the memoirs of environmentalist-author Farley Mowat, stars Charles Martin Smith as Tyler, a Canadian biologist sent to the Arctic wilderness. There, Tyler forms an attachment to several wolves, adopting some of their behaviors, such as marking territory and eating mice. Inevitably, an exploitative world intrudes on Tyler’s paradise, and larger lessons about the ways of nature, human and otherwise, are learned. In the colorful adventures of 2005’s “Duma,” a South African boy, Xan (Alex Michaeletos), turns an orphaned cheetah cub, Duma, into a pet who becomes an adult cat unsuited to city life. Reluctantly, Xan sets out on a motorcycle with Duma to release his beloved friend in Botswana’s cheetah-friendly mountains, encountering many dangers (including a scorching Kalahari Desert) along the way. Both movies are rated PG.
“Okja” (Netflix): South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho and his 2019 “Parasite” cleaned up at the Oscars a few months back. His 2017 “Okja” displays the writer-director’s trademark mashup of genres and sudden tonal shifts, lurching from bombastic satire to pastoral fable to horror in the blink of an eye. Set in the near future, a multinational corporation creates lovable (and tasty) dinosaur-size super-pigs. Okja is one such sweet behemoth, and when he is stolen away for slaughter, his lifelong human companion (Ahn Seo-hyun) gets mixed up with an animal liberation group. A farce about commoditizing all things vulnerable, the film’s special effects are dazzling, while the brutality endured by Okja is nightmarish. Rated TV-MA.
“Penguins: Life on the Edge” (Disney+): It’s easy to take Disney’s wildlife films for granted. But the production crews behind such projects are often subjected to harsh physical conditions while struggling to capture dazzling images of remote critters. “Penguins: Life on the Edge” follows several documentary crews over a long summer as they shoot the appealing nature feature “Penguins” (also available on Disney+) in Antarctica. Stalled by thick sea ice, 100-mph hurricanes and long, long waits for penguin eggs to hatch for the camera, these men and women admire the hardy, guileless birds who get on with penguin business no matter what. Rated G.
“Roar” (iTunes, YouTube): Arguably the most bonkers movie ever made, “Roar,” released in 1981, stars Tippi Hedren and her daughter, Melanie Griffith, as the family of a Tanzania-based naturalist (Noel Marshall, Hedren’s husband at the time). Surrounded by scores of genuinely wild lions and other big cats constantly knocking down, mobbing and gnawing on a bloodied Marshall and others, the actors look to be always at the mercy of whatever the beasts feel like doing. Marshall clumsily directed “Roar,” though cinematography by Jan de Bont, who later directed “Speed,” makes this eye-popping, crazy experience watchable. Rated PG (there is a fictional scene of death befalling lions and men).
“The Secret of Roan Inish” (Amazon, YouTube): John Sayles’ engrossing 1994 fable is set in Donegal, Ireland, where 10-year-old Fiona (Jeni Courtney) discovers the existence of a wild child on nearby Roan Inish, the abandoned island home her family evacuated during World War II. Believing the boy to be her lost brother — his survival tied to lore about a selkie (a mythical seal that takes human form) — the young heroine becomes determined to reclaim her family’s identity and roots. Sayles builds a bridge between seals and human characters that crosses, without garish spectacle or strain, into magic. Rated PG.
“The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” (Kanopy): In this gentle 2003 documentary, an unemployed San Francisco man, Mark Bittner, finds purpose as a caretaker and observer of multihued wild parrots traveling in large flocks. Regarded by city authorities as a kindhearted eccentric, Bittner feeds and monitors the health of the birds, each of whom he knows to be an individual personality. As his situation changes, the answer to whether the parrots have given Bittner as much as he has given them proves enlightening, if bittersweet. Rated G.
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