Explorers and adventurers alike will be delighted to know that director David Douglas’ Island of Lemurs: Madagascar is as fun and informative a short film as any in recent memory. Captured using IMAX 3D cameras, the documentary presents the country of its title in all its glorious landscapes and colors. Of course, the film wouldn’t be much of anything without its titular creature: the lemur. As picturesque as the rainforest is when rendered in breathtaking 3D, it is the lemurs that bring Madagascar bursting out of the screen with stunning urgency.
The main action here surrounds Dr. Patricia Wright’s efforts to preserve the golden bamboo lemurs. This particular breed was thought to be extinct until she happened upon a few stragglers in what remains of Madagascar’s rainforest. At the onset of the film, only two golden bamboo lemurs dwell on preserved land. Dr. Wright’s team of primatologists and conservationists are tasked with finding more potential mates to repopulate the species before it’s too late. By the end, Wright and her cohort must brave a searing wildfire to rescue a handful of lemurs that may be their proverbial golden tickets. Will their efforts succeed? That is certainly the hope.
Morgan Freeman lends his comfortingly familiar vocals to this touching tale of Earth’s oldest living primates, as he tells us that nearly 100 species of lemur inhabit Madagascar. In fact, it is the only place on the planet that they call home. The temperamental seasons of the island have allowed for a splendid evolutionary diversity. We’re introduced one-by-one to the singing indri lemur, the cave-dwelling ringtail lemur and the small-but-ferocious mouse lemur. Each is more strange and beautiful than the last, and all are barreling down a collision course towards extinction.
Unfortunately, the film’s simple narrative belies the complexity of its subject’s problems. Decisions about conservationism in Madagascar have to be made with great consideration, as the people of that region are dependent on the same resources as the animals. Over 90 percent of the rainforest has been lost either by fire or for farming, both of which are often the result of the island’s human inhabitants. Moving these animals doesn’t seem to be an option, either. As the film tells us, no indri lemur has ever survived in captivity. Asking nearby residents not to encroach on the lemur’s natural habitat leaves many without a viable source of income.
Island of Lemurs: Madagascar is a film that presents many questions, but very few solutions. Despite the gorgeous images and wonderful score (composed by the indelible Mark Mothersbaugh), there is a contemplative heart underneath. Douglas, also the film’s cinematographer, tends to quietly linger on simply framed shots of lemurs over bamboo or rock. It would be a mistake to write these shots off as easy, as the very presence of an observer disrupts nature, and yet we feel as though the rainforest and its inhabitants are unaltered by his lens. The documentary thrives under his becalmed observation of the lemur, but also occasionally suffers by not allowing them to control the narrative.
It isn’t a leap to imagine one’s complaints about the film begin and end with its 39 minute running time. What’s left is a backhanded compliment: Islands of Lemurs: Madagascar is good, but it tries to tell as much as it tries to show. The great work by Douglas and his team is reduced to simply good work due to the inherent limitations of time. Despite this complaint though, and it is a large one, I’d still recommend checking the film out. If nothing else, you’ll walk away absolutely enamored with lemurs, which was clearly the film’s goal in the first place.
While Island of Lemurs: Madagascar occasionally rises to the beauty of its subject, it's hard to ignore the fact that it is an oversimplified look at a complex problem.