Some animals were simply made for the bigscreen, as the subjects of “Humpback Whales” prove all too swimmingly. It’s hard to believe there hasn’t already been a dedicated Imax nature doc about the massive creatures, but veteran filmmaker Greg MacGillivray (“Everest”) seizes the opportunity with striking imagery, which goes a long way toward compensating for his frequently over-earnest messaging. At least there are worse goals for a film to have than inspiring a new generation of ocean-life enthusiasts and researchers. Family auds should embrace the easygoing doc in large enough numbers to generate solid grosses in large-format venues.
Opening with a gorgeous upside-down underwater shot of a whale breaching the surface, MacGillivray and his exceptional camera team set a mood of mystery and wonder. It’s a shot that’s equaled all too rarely in the next 30-some minutes, though there are still plenty of awe-inspiring, if less evocative, visuals to come. From footage of calves playing alongside their mothers to massive migrations to the unique group “bubble net” feeding technique (rendered partially through the use of CG effects), “Humpback” turns natural behaviors into supersized encounters — one does quite literally feel it’s possible to reach out and touch the 50-foot giants onscreen.
The narrative, such as it is, takes a two-pronged approach: first, to let viewers know how close these animals actually came to extinction due to whaling — and the miraculous comeback they made once a movement for protection began in the ’70s and ’80s. (Indeed, 1986’s “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” with a prominent save the whales plot, may be the humpback’s most famous film credit.) And second, to inform us how much there still is to discover about the behavior of humpback whales.
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The humpbacks proved to be their own best advocates in the fight for their protection, as their haunting songs became popular audio recordings and their unexplained habit of breaching the water captivates whale watchers in oceans worldwide. MacGillivray isn’t afraid to milk this crowdpleasing behavior with multiple montages set to American Authors’ increasingly irritating earworm single “Best Day of My Life.”
The cheesy flourishes continue with overly scripted voiceovers recorded by various experts featured in the film including Hawaii-based researcher Jim Darling and rescuer Ed Lyman, which lend a stiff educational-doc feel to sequences of the pros at work. By contrast, Ewan McGregor’s capable narration is informative without becoming distracting.
Still, the whales are the true stars here and they look and sound simply magnificent in the Imax presentation. For auds who can’t make the trek to the film’s various locales, including Tonga and Alaska, watching “Humpback Whales” will be the next best thing.