Let Island Of Lemurs be a lesson to all nature documentaries: When the narration services of Morgan Freeman have been secured, letting anyone else talk is a risky proposition. Freeman’s silky voice propelled March Of The Penguins to box-office success and an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature; the man can deliver the poetry of nature cinematography. Part sumptuous IMAX documentary, part fervent but dull conservationist pitch, Island Of Lemurs seems destined instead for an obscurity all too familiar to nature films not released by Disneynature.
David Douglas, a veteran IMAX short-subject director, travels to Madagascar to capture the habits of endangered lemur species all over the island, while also lending a platform to Stony Brook University primatologist Dr. Patricia Wright. She has an impressive résumé, rediscovering a species of lemur long thought to be extinct, and working to boost the populations threatened by shrinking habitats (90 percent of Madagascar’s rainforest has been razed for cattle and farmland) and forest fires. But in contrast to Freeman’s natural, flowing delivery, her voiceovers are stilted, overwritten, and monotonous.
Soaring over the island in a helicopter, Douglas and his crew capture breathtaking landscapes and shots of ring-tailed lemurs climbing to dizzying heights over rock formations. When this gorgeous imagery alone is allowed to convey the message, Island Of Lemurs is engrossing. (It’s also occasionally humorous, thanks to its bounding star attractions.) But while the scenes with Wright may be necessary, given the dire straits lemurs face, they violate the film’s otherworldly quality—the power inherent in simply observing this unique environment and its amazingly bizarre creatures.
The history of Madagascar also gets short shrift, in regards both to the evolution of lemurs and to modern struggles for sufficient natural resources. March Of The Penguins was only 80 minutes long, but it had a life-cycle story to follow. In contrast, Island Of Lemurs struggles to scrape together the meager runtime of a television episode. Though wondrous in stretches, it barely scratches the surface of its subject, the ecological smorgasbord of Madagascar.