When a baby orca strayed from its family pod near Puget Sound and showed up 200 miles away in Canada in 2001, it became the center of a long-running human drama by turns cute, inspirational, ludicrous and tragic, as documented in “The Whale.” Desperately craving companionship, Luna persisted in bonding with humans, leading the government to launch an all-out campaign to segregate the two species. Docu dotes on its adorable, highly photogenic star, but nonstop voiceover commentary and exclamations of wonderment tend to lessen rather than enhance its impact. Nevertheless, the fest-laureled nature pic won’t flounder after its Sept. 23 opening.
Luna’s story was initially captured by documentarians Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit, who screened their 2007 film at festivals under the title “Saving Luna.” The docu, which enjoyed unexpected popularity and won the audience award at Santa Barbara, was then picked up by exec producers Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson. They revamped it, adding new footage and a narrator in the form of Reynolds, who casts Luna as an oceanic E.T., a visitor from another world making cross-species contact with human beings.
Certainly the playful, caress-loving Luna could fit comfortably in a Disney or Spielberg film, and the alternately affectionate and paranoid reactions to the calf seem perfectly consistent with Hollywood conventions. Of course, if Werner Herzog had reconfigured the footage, he might have been presented Luna as a childishly enthusiastic mammal mistakenly trusting in the goodwill of humankind.
In the filmmakers’ scenario, the Canadian government makes a natural villain. Rejecting offers to finance and expedite Luna’s return to his pod, the Canadian Dept. of Fisheries instead devised a stewardship program whereby women were dispatched on boats to discourage people from interacting with the whale. Fines of $100,000 were threatened, and even establishing eye contact became a criminal offense. Deprived of his usual pals, Luna then fraternized with the young women stewards, unable to resist his imploring eyes, plaintive cries and playful bids for attention.
Meanwhile, Luna’s would-be protectors assume the roles of character actors in this drama: a mother whose every visit produced an epiphany, a cook whose freighter Luna liked to swim beside, a logger for whom he “worked” by nudging lumber, and the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations people, who revered him as the spirit of their departed chief.
But the filmmakers do not have sufficient control of the material to bend it to their will; nor is the narration well-written enough to integrate unfolding events into a tonally coherent whole, as “The Whale” veers from frustrated advocacy to near-religious awe and back again to family-friendly schmaltz.