The long, slender Malagasy primates that once thrived but are now skittering ever closer to extinction get their giantscreen closeup in “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar,” a serviceable Imax 3D nature documentary that duly meets the requirements of the form: majestic and intimate outdoor imagery, a grave yet reassuring lesson on the importance of wildlife preservation, and a short-and-sweet 40-minute running time. The all-important narration duties fall, predictably yet effectively, to Morgan Freeman, reteaming with producer/writer Drew Fellman and cinematographer David Douglas after their 2011 Imax 3D effort, “Born to Be Wild,” whose tale of baby elephants and orangutans grossed $34 million worldwide. While this film’s subjects may not be quite as “awww”-inspiring and it has a fuzzier sense of focus, it should score similarly impressive numbers as a family-friendly educational crowdpleaser.
As dramatized in a brief prologue, more than 60 million years ago a massive storm over Africa washed a family of lemurs out to sea, but thanks to a floating raft of vegetation, they found their way safely to an island in the Indian Ocean. Devoid of predators or indeed any other mammals, Madagascar served as a thriving natural habitat for these early primates, and Douglas (who also directed) and Fellman devote much of their focus to a jumpy overview of the various lemur species that evolved from that initial group. These range in size from the enormous indri to the tiny mouse lemurs, a few of which are shown looking cute and wide-eyed as they’re subjected to a battery of benign scientific tests.
Receiving the most screen time here are the ring-tailed lemurs, perhaps the most familiar of lemur species (and certainly the most cinematic, having popped up in such recent films as “Life of Pi” and the animated “Madagascar” movies). Shown leaping deftly over cliffs and rock formations in the Anja Community Reserve, at times accompanied by the booming strains of “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” they are a highly resilient and adaptable bunch, having retreated to this “natural fortress” after the rampant slashing and burning of the rainforest by local villagers, destroying the resources that lemurs have relied on for millennia.
As they did in “Born to Be Wild,” Douglas and Fellman focus on the laudable efforts of human individuals working to ensure the animals’ survival. This time, their heroine is Patricia C. Wright, a pioneering primatologist who helped to establish Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park, a 112,000-acre protected rainforest where lemurs can dwell (and be studied) safely. Wright has a particular fondness for the greater bamboo lemur, a sadly endangered species (only 300 remain) that she tries to boost by playing matchmaker for a local male lemur and a female companion imported from outside the rainforest. While the sequence that follows is entirely G-rated, parents may find themselves in a slightly awkward position if their tots ask what happens next, especially with “Be My Baby” accompanying the sequence on the soundtrack.
While Freeman narrates with his usual sonorous professionalism, additional voiceover duties are handled by Wright, who makes an engaging enough guide as she describes what she loves best about her favorite primates: their charming sense of mischief and their general ease around human beings. Certainly they show no signs of inhibition around the unwieldy Imax camera, which catches intimate, unforced glimpses of lemurs dangling from branches, snacking on insects and hopping gracefully from one tree to the next.
It all makes for a pleasant if fairly pedestrian viewing experience, one that more or less gets the job done in terms of balancing the requisite ooh-ahh moments with another unsurprising reminder of man’s capacity for selfishness and destruction. The film’s slyly attention-grabbing camera subjects are not always ideally served by either the giantscreen format or the use of 3D, which are typically better suited to dynamic and immersive environments rather than extreme animal closeups of the sort on display here. Still, Douglas’ images are cleanly composed and smoothly edited (by Beth Siegel), if at times overaccompanied by Mark Mothersbaugh’s score, which too often surges when silence would have been more effective.