Splendid views of marine life and the dulcet tones of narrator Cate Blanchett help a message of mild ecological alarm go down easily in “Journey to the South Pacific,” the latest kid-friendly Imax 3D documentary from MacGillivray Freeman Films. As one might expect from the company’s high visual standards, the picture’s raison d’etre is its gorgeous, enveloping underwater imagery, shot around the coral reefs of West Papua, Indonesia, and held together by the rather less engaging thread of a village boy receiving an extensive hands-on education. Last year’s “To the Arctic” grossed more than $21 million worldwide, and although it boasts no equivalent of that film’s cute-polar-bears hook, this “Journey” should encounter friendly B.O. waters on the edutainment circuit.
Directors and longtime collaborators Greg MacGillivray and Stephen Judson brought their crew (including d.p. Brad Ohlund) and 25,000 pounds of camera equipment to the remote islands of West Papua, which, located squarely in the center of the Coral Triangle (aka “the Amazon of the seas”), is home to a staggeringly diverse array of fish species. Devoted to studying the coral reefs up close are those aboard the Kalabia, a 100-foot trawler converted into a “floating classroom” for the purpose of educating local children about ocean life. One of these kids is 13-year-old Jawi Mayor, whose first excursion on the Kalabia provides the film with its chief framing device.
After a few lively establishing shots of life in Mayor’s home village, the film follows the boat on a tour of the West Papuan archipelago, pausing occasionally to descend occasionally into the sparklingly clear waters. Among the many creatures captured onscreen is the endangered Pacific leatherback turtle, capable of growing up to 9 feet long; the filmmakers were fortunate enough to catch the rare sight of a mother leatherback crawling up a beach to nest. The other chief highlight is the school of 40-foot-long whale sharks that Mayor bravely swims with, and even gets close enough to feed; although these enormous creatures pose no threats to humans, they’re still imposing enough to suggest otherwise for those unawares.
Structurally, the film is somewhat rambling and unfocused even within its tight 40-minute running time, cutting away periodically to address the ways in which overfishing and rising water levels have severely impacted the reef and its ability to support plant and animal life. The lessons are valuable and necessary, but they’re not particularly well integrated into Mayor’s feel-good story, with its beaming sense of wonder and optimism. The docu’s most playful sequence attempts to merge these two threads by setting the fish’s mouth movements to music, as though expressing their gratitude at the gradual restoration of their reef. It’s an appealingly goofy moment; you half expect “Under the Sea” to pop up on the soundtrack, which is dominated by Steve Wood’s guitar-based but wide-ranging score.
Underwater lensers Howard Hall, D.J. Roller and Peter Kragh film their many finned and tentacled subjects in frame-filling closeups, held by editors Judson and Jonathan Shaw at a duration that allows the viewer to drink in these images at their leisure. Above the water, the 3D imparts a crisp, almost hyperreal clarity and depth to the shots of island life. Down below, the stereoscopic conversion looks more natural and immersive; in these subaquatic depths, few sights are as eye-ticklingly beautiful as a school of fish moving together as one, like a shimmering, undulating curtain.