A grand take on a tiny tale
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, October 5, 2012
Resist the urge to bat away the butterflies flapping toward your face. They aren’t real. It’s easy to forget “Flight of the Butterflies” is just a movie, as the 3-D documentary about monarch migrations looks and sounds so much like nature.
The film weaves together two stories. The first is the tale of late scientist Fred Urquhart. Dramatizations recount his life, beginning with a childhood in Canada during which he became obsessed with finding out where butterflies flitted off to each year. As an adult, and with the help of his butterfly-enthusiast wife, he enlisted a team of “citizen scientists” from across the country to tag butterflies with adhesive labels and figure out monarch flight paths. Interestingly, a dominant pattern emerged. Every third generation, a group of North American super-butterflies would travel south for the winter months, and it seemed as though they were all congregating in one place. But where exactly was the destination?
It took decades of tagging and research to uncover the mysterious sanctuary, and Urquhart’s hard work is the filmgoer’s gain, enabling director Mike Slee to capture millions of butterflies in one place. Their constantly beating wings sound like raindrops on a forest floor, and when they converge side by side on branches, trees appear to be composed of orange and black butterfly bark. It’s an arresting visual that looks like something out of a Tim Burton film.
The film’s second thread looks at the evolution of a monarch, from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult butterfly. It’s an educational but equally engrossing bit of filmmaking. These tiny beings are magnified across the screen so audiences can witness a caterpillar’s accordionlike movements and the way it consumes a milkweed leaf, typewriter style. Slee also captures the cocooning process, speeding up the weeks during which a caterpillar transforms into a wholly different being, capable of flight and with a sudden taste for nectar.
The documentary feels a bit reminiscent of “March of the Penguins” in terms of its ability to tug at heartstrings. It’s easy to feel invested in Urquhart’s quest to uncover the secret butterfly Shangri-La and to root for the adorable caterpillars, only a tiny fraction of which will make it to monarch adulthood. It could be the 3-D, or perhaps it’s the ability to zoom in with such detail, but this miniature underdog story manages to take on human scale.
Contains nothing objectionable.