A dashing red collar — finally shed, in a moment of chattering triumph — is the only overt sign of anthropomorphism in “Amazonia,” a beguiling narrative creature feature that takes its monkey business rather seriously. Which is not to say there’s any shortage of “awww” moments (or, indeed, awe moments) in this dialogue-free tale of a scrappy domesticated capuchin monkey who must learn the rules of the wild when a plane crash strands him in the Amazon rainforest. The plucky primate may be the star, but Thierry Ragobert’s film offers ample face time with a rich ensemble of exotic beasts, with effective 3D making the experience roughly akin to paging through a lavish zoological pop-up book. Kids and adults mature enough to handle mild animal peril will be duly enchanted by this universally distributable picture.
With its sense of gentle whimsy deriving principally from the capuchin monkey’s own natural expressivity, “Amazonia” is a considerably less intense experience than Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1988 crossover hit “The Bear,” but joins it among the rare ranks of films that trust audiences to engage with an animal-based narrative without need for humanizing voiceover. Not to be confused with observational documentary in the vein of David Attenborough, the film’s fundamental fiction and artfully wrangled critters mark it as a departure for Ragobert from the more objective arctic spectacle of his last theatrical effort, “The White Planet.”
Named Sai in the press notes if not in the film itself, our fuzzy, emphatically eyebrowed protagonist is a pretty open book throughout, as the appropriately basic story (cooked up by Ragobert and four other writers) takes him through progressive stages of fear, curiosity, defiance and even first love. The pic wastes no time setting things into motion, opening with a caged Sai being packed into a biplane as his young owner, presumably set to collect him in another location, bids a silent farewell. No sooner are we in the air than the clouds darken, the wind rises and the unseen pilot steers the plane to a crash landing smooth enough not to traumatize younger viewers.
With the pilot having bolted and this rather artificial setup out of the way (the flight sequences are the sole ones in which the 3D looks phony), it takes only an obliging anteater to loosen Sai’s cage before the Amazon is his oyster. And, for that matter, his tapir, toucan and trapdoor spider, as the monkey’s early lessons in foraging, sheltering and identifying predators are intercut with a glorious parade of rainforest wildlife in full pomp. The methodical presentation of the fauna making up this tropical Noah’s Ark should please educators and parents, providing ample scope for “name that specimen” games — outside theatrical venues, of course. Some inclusions, however, may stump even learned grown-ups: An apricot-colored caterpillar with the lush, wobbling adornments of a Vegas showgirl is a particularly delightful discovery.
Sure enough, Sai eventually happens upon a troupe of his own kind, though acceptance is a hard-won battle in a third act that also incorporates a subtly pointed ecological message about man’s imposition on this florid but fragile ecosystem.
The technical package on this entirely sense-dependent project, which took more than two years to film, is obviously of the highest caliber. Luminous work from a trio of lensers, enhanced with understated animation and vfx work, is flattered by the 3D without being dependent on it — vital for a film with endless ancillary replay value in family living rooms. Nadine Verdier’s editing keeps the film firmly on the side of fiction, notably in a stylized mid-film sequence that suggests monkeys have some pretty trippy dreams.
Bruno Coulais’ pretty, kid-friendly score is high on sugar content, but the film’s greatest sonic asset is its pin-sharp foley work, giving each animal a distinctive voice even in this wordless world.