From marching penguins to BBC’s hi-def “Planet Earth” series, nature docs have evolved dramatically in recent years, and yet for sheer spectacle, nothing beats the time-tested impact of the Imax format. While “Born to Be Wild 3D” sticks faithfully to the giantscreen brand’s impress-and-educate formula, playful narration from Morgan Freeman and ooh-aah 3D Imax lensing give this modest tale of “two fairy godmothers” — extraordinary women who have dedicated their lives to raising and re-releasing orphaned orangutans and elephants — the emotional and visual heft to lift it into the pantheon of long-running Imax earners.
With an eye toward the grade-school audience and yet enough heart to draw animal lovers of all ages, director David Lickley (“Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees”) presents a complementary pair of portraits in sensitive, Borneo-based primatologist Birute Mary Galdikas and similarly hands-on pachyderm protector Daphne M. Sheldrick, who works across the Indian Ocean in Kenya. These two women have dedicated the better parts of their lives to rehabilitating their respective species, stepping in only when the baby animals have been left parentless by poachers or other tragedies.
Both the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Orangutan Foundation Intl. serve as elaborate nurseries, looking like something out of an earlier, more imperialistic century as these benevolent, cotton-haired old ladies oversee a small army of local assistants. Though Freeman’s bemused voiceover (penned by producer Drew Fellman) says little of these many brown-skinned nannies, the footage makes abundantly clear that Sheldrick and Galdikas are not the only ones with a special connection to the animals; orangutans, in particular, cling to their mothers for the first year, which calls for dedicated caregivers.
Using dollies, cranes and aerial photography to bring a sense of movement and scope to the footage, Lickley and d.p. David Douglas transport auds to these two remote habitats, with the rich, green forests surrounding the OFI’s orangutan care center offering a sharp contrast from the dusty red desert of Nairobi. By alternating between the two operations, “Born to Be Wild” tracks the development and eventual release of youngsters in both camps, simplifying things somewhat in the case of the elephants, since the process takes several years longer.
In one of the docu’s more stunning scenes, the team observes the rescue of an orphaned baby elephant from amid a herd of potentially aggressive full-grown males. Kids, however, will likely prefer scenes of mud-wrestling and playful mini-stampedes, in which the animals kick rubber balls out over the auds’ heads. Though a few shots seem to have been post-converted into 3D, in general, the production benefits from relatively new digital stereoscopic equipment, which allows the crew to film longer without having to reload or disrupt its camera-shy subjects. With the orangutans, one can only imagine the extra effort it must have taken to haul an Imax rig into the treetops.
Editor Beth Spiegel economically picks the right moments to capture the animals’ personalities while letting the beauty shots run long, giving auds a real sense of the film’s exotic environments. Given the sheer scale of the format, Imax provides an ideal context in which to experience 3D, allowing the eyes to wander about each periphery-filling frame and focus on whatever catches our interest, the way we do in the real world.
Though the idea of Freeman as narrator is fast becoming its own sort of nonfiction cliche, the way the David Attenborough-style British naturalist once did, coupling his words with a trendy Mark Mothersbaugh score (augmented with a few familiar tracks) moves “Born to Be Wild” away from the stuffy PBS tradition toward something more Madison Ave., giving the film the desired upbeat, inspirational feel.