Master documaker Frederick Wiseman has culled just over two hours of instructive, amusing, sometimes startling footage from 100 hours of raw material lensed in bright Florida sunshine during a 42-day shoot at Miami’s MetroZoo.
Apart from a brief lag in the middle, longish docu sustains viewer interest. Punctuated by the adventures of the zoo’s lone vet, well-edited pic sports its own ebb and flow, high drama and biz-as-usual contrasts.
It helps that the spacious facility, home to 2,800 animals, genuinely seems to be a nice place — only the lions and a few of the primates appear displeased with their surroundings.
MetroZoo is a city unto itself, complete with medical emergencies (a protracted rhino birth) and “crime” (deer are found mauled to death by a feral dog).
The zoo has the balmy, benign look of a controlled environment but the cumulative effect is odd, sometimes queasiness-inducing.
Absence of didactic narration creates suspense. Self-contained dramas are gradually and skillfully resolved.
Cut-aways to zoo visitors, who seem to do more peering by intermediary of Camcorder than via the naked eye, effortlessly emphasize that humans may sometimes look and act stranger than their fellow members of the animal kingdom.
Pic never shies from gory or unsettling events, including the clinical yet convivial post-mortem butchering of a stillborn rhino calf.
The sunlit procedure, as the vet rinses the calf’s severed head while co-workers chat in the background, is as surreal as anything in “Un Chien Andalou.”
Always unobtrusive and steady lensing puts viewers in a privileged position.
Some events could prove frightening to young children and others may unnerve grown-ups.
Even though zookeepers procure the grub, anyone who’s forgotten that some animals eat others is in for a pointed refresher course.
In one example, viewers hear a fluffy little bunny’s death throes after a staffer bonks him on the head, then watch in extreme close-up as a good-sized snake gobbles the cottontail whole.
There is no doubt a feminist critique to be made of the group of women who sweet-talk a dog prior to drugging and castrating Fido in vividly lensed detail, complete with an amusing running commentary from the femme surgeon.
Nice touches include an episode of simian dentistry, and a meeting of zoo trustees complete with a “Komodo dragon update.”