Wayward orca a weighty issue
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Oct 14, 2011
Even when the persistence of an attention-seeking puppy threatens a lazy afternoon of channel-surfing with a wet nose wedging itself between your hand and the remote control, annoyance generally gives way to belly rubs and milk bones.
Now imagine that puppy is 3,000 pounds; that sums up the central character in "The Whale."
Luna is the needy golden retriever of killer whales. After getting separated from his pod at 2 years old, he started paying frequent visits to the residents living along Nootka Sound on the west side of Canada's Vancouver Island. He began following their boats, bumping in and out of their wakes like a water-skier, before popping up alongside canoes seemingly looking for a pat on the head and rerouting kayakers so they couldn't make it ashore, because - the movie seems to argue - he's just a big baby looking for a playmate.
Canadian-born actor Ryan Reynolds narrates the tale, which starts out as an excuse for animal lovers to squeal in delight at their own desire to give this orphaned orca a hug.
But "The Whale" offers deeper insights than some viral YouTube clip about a grasshopper, an alligator and a bunny rabbit that become best friends for life. The truth is, as one interviewee notes, the more interaction between whales and humans, the greater the likelihood that someone, or some whale, will get hurt.
It proves difficult to juggle what's best for Luna and the needs of the people around him, especially when Nootka's new resident comes to mean a variety of things to different members of the community. Some view him as a constant companion, others as a nuisance, especially when he mistakes a seaplane for a giant chew toy. The Native Americans living nearby believe the whale is the reincarnation of a recently deceased tribal chief, while some government officials deem him a problem in need of a solution, even if that means trapping the whale and shipping him off to an aquarium.
These views are fairly aligned with one's ability to anthropomorphize the animal. Can whales even feel loneliness? And if they can, is it our job to fulfill their needs?
The documentary charts the process of deciding what to do with Luna and offers an array of fascinating footage of the whale interacting with humans, along with interviews from all sides of the debate. The movie can be a bit heavy-handed when looking down upon some of the missteps along the way, especially considering the lack of precedent, being that orcas don't generally survive after losing their pod. But it's hard not to feel some sympathy for the whale when government officials sanction what amounts to solitary confinement for Luna by threatening a $100,000 fine for anyone who touches him. In a funny interlude, one woman is caught petting Luna and states that her heavily reduced fine was "the best $100 I ever spent." Meanwhile, the whale seems to respond to the tough love as a petulant child might, acting out to get someone's attention.
Clearly this is a movie geared toward theatergoers who believe in animal emotions. But regardless of those sentiments, there's no denying that filmmakers Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit captured spectacular shots of both wildlife and picturesque scenery of evergreen-lined water under vibrant pink sunsets.
It's a little extra eye candy in a documentary that's both visually stunning and emotionally wrought. "The Whale" begs for post-movie discussion about what should have been done with the graceful and lovable bicolor dilemma at the center of the film; the answer is hardly black and white.
Contains brief images of an injured whale.