'Island of Lemurs' offers fun, brief look at life in Madagascar

By Josh Terry

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, April 4 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Fat-tailed dwarf lemurs reside in sleeping holes found in Madagascar.

Warner Bros.

A new IMAX film is giving audiences a taste of Madagascar’s exotic animal life … but just a taste.

Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” is a brief documentary on a unique primate native to the massive island off the eastern coast of Africa. It’s a fun look at a charming animal, and a rare piece of filmmaking that makes good use of contemporary 3-D technology.

Narrated by Morgan Freeman, “Island of Lemurs” follows the efforts of Patricia Wright, a Brooklyn social worker-turned-anthropologist who is working to protect the animals against a variety of threats. According to the documentary, over three-quarters of Madagascar’s forests have been burned in order to accommodate grazing and farming efforts, and frequently the fires burn out of control, threatening the lemur population as well as other local wildlife.

Along the way, “Island of Lemurs” shares an evolution-based origin narrative that suggests the first lemurs made it to the island trapped in a clump of trees that floated over from the African continent, and eventually evolved into the variety of species we see today. The lemurs who remained behind, according to the film, could be as large as gorillas in some instances (they have been extinct for several hundred years now), but most remaining lemurs, now native to Madagascar exclusively, are closer to the size of a chimpanzee. The most recognizable are the ring-tailed lemurs, a species notable for its female-dominant culture. They also come as tiny as the mouse lemur, the world’s smallest primate, which today strikes fear in the hearts of Madagascar’s insect population.

Even though this is an educational film, it’s clearly designed for a younger audience. The IMAX format screen is filled with ample footage of the cute and cuddly creatures as they leap between branches or swagger across dirt roads. The lemur content is intercut with scenes of Madagascar’s human population, and it's all underscored by an upbeat soundtrack from Mark Mothersbaugh. Music fans might be amused to hear a few popular songs from rock history re-interpreted for the African setting, such as when the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” is used during a scene where Wright acts as a lemur matchmaker. And sci-fi fans will appreciate an early homage to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

This is a perfect subject for the IMAX format, and even the live-action 3-D content feels more realistic and worthwhile than usual when it's used to bring such exotic content to life. Hyper-real camera work captures the scope and detail of Madagascar’s landscape and gives viewers an intimate look at all sorts of wildlife in addition to the lemurs. Even tracking shots of the aforementioned wildfires inspire a sense of awe.

If there’s only one problem with the production, it’s its 39-minute run time. That’s even shorter than your typical hour-long TV show minus the commercials. It’s a great show for those 40 minutes, but it may make you think twice about the ticket price.

“Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” is a film designed for families and school field trips, and is rated G.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.

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