With a title like “Amazon Adventure,” director Mike Slee’s latest large-screen triumph suggests a pulse-quickening tropical thrill ride, complete with raging rapids, cannibal confrontations, and run-ins with swarms of teeth-gnashing piranhas. If audiences want that kind of Amazon adventure, they need look no farther than James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z,” now in theaters, or Simon McBurney’s mind-bending one-man show “The Encounter,” which just wrapped a spectacular run at L.A.’s Wallis Annenberg Center.
As it happens, the “adventure” Slee has in mind is strictly of the educational variety, and while that may dissuade normal moviegoers from seeking out this exotic learning opportunity (which plays museums and science centers, rather than megaplexes anyway), parents and teachers of grade-school kids have reason to rejoice: Slee’s film boasts such a high level of writing, acting, and overall production polish that youngsters may be fooled into thinking they’re watching a mindless blockbuster, when in fact, they’ve actually been fooled into thinking.
Beginning in early 19th-century England, “Amazon Adventure” takes as its hero Henry Walter Bates (played here by Calum Finlay), a British naturalist who was the gotta-catch-’em-all champion of his era, at a time long before Pokemon Go! “My joy was collecting beetles,” he announces via voiceover, and soon enough, that obsession is fueling a trip to the still-unmapped inner region of Brazil. Bates lived at a time when the science world was scandalized by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which challenged the prevailing notion that species had been created in an ideal form for some divine power.
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Bates idolized Darwin and hoped his own research might corroborate the idea of evolution, but the conditions in the Amazon were so taxing, he and native assistant Tando (Begê Muniz) spent much of their energy simply trying to survive. And yet, throughout his time in the jungle, Bates collected and cataloged thousands of insect specimens, which he sent back to England — and which, after he had returned thinking his trip was a failure, Bates would later use to make his most significant finding. (While not entirely surprising, this twist recalls another Amazon adventure, 1992’s “Medicine Man,” in which Sean Connery seeks a cure for cancer in rainforests threatened by slash-and-burn forces, only to realize at the last minute that a previously overlooked insect pest holds the key.)
While nearly all made-for-Imax educational movies boast breathtaking visuals, this one matches its imagery with an equally memorable story, which screenwriters Wendy MacKeigan and Carl Knutson diligently compress to fit Imax’s 45-minute time limit. In addition to cataloging many new species (reflected through stunning montages of all sorts of unusual animals and insects), Bates was especially interested in studying “mimicry” — a variation on camouflage in which natural selection results in a more conspicuous appearance, as evolution steers innocuous species to resemble more dangerous ones in order to avoid predators. The “viper caterpillar” is such an effective copycat, it takes a moment to register the lookalike isn’t a snake at all!
Like Bates, director Slee has thing for butterflies, which makes this a natural follow-up to his terrific “Flight of the Butterflies,” which followed the incredible creatures’ migration route from Canada to warmer climes, culminating in the most remarkable footage ever shot of Monarch butterflies gathered en masse in Mexico. Here, a species of butterfly called Longwings allows Bates to boost Darwin’s theory, and though we never get anything quite as spectacular as the immersive stereoscopic 3D swarms featured in his previous film, Slee delivers something equally impressive: access to Bates’ original specimens, making a rare screen appearance, courtesy of London’s Natural History Museum.
Since the film was intended to be seen on the largest screen possible, cinematographers Gerry Vasbenter and Richard Kirby frame the period reenactments in medium and long shots, making the most of the lush jungle location shooting in the process, while saving closeups for the exotic critters, which look just terrific when studied in such hi-def detail. Rudimentary animation serves to explain evolutionary principles along the way, while more sophisticated visual effects amplify the excitement in places — as in a dramatic river bank collapse. While not an adventure in the pulse-quickening Indiana Jones sense, the overall impact of Bates’ journey shows kids one of the more exciting sides of scientific discovery.