Experiencing the tens of millions of monarch butterflies that winter in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, is on many an eco-tourist’s bucket list. But the journey to the remote high-altitude sanctuaries is both physically and logistically difficult. Plus, there’s that State Department warning against non-essential travel to Michoacan.
Not to worry. The new Imax film “Flight of the Butterflies” brings the monarchs to us.
The film, which premiered Sept. 24 at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History before a VIP-studded crowd that included Mexican President Felipe Calderon, opens dramatically: Thousands of 3-D monarchs flit and float across the screen in a scene so authentic that the audience physically reached out as if to touch the real thing. And for the next 44 minutes, that feeling of being there never wavered. This is armchair travel at its most engaging.
The movie, produced by SK Films of Toronto, has two complementing and interwoven threads — insect and human — that together make it more than just another expertly produced nature film.
The monarch’s complex life cycle is deftly and beautifully chronicled through the lives of Dana (short for Danaus plexippus, the monarch’s scientific name), her daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter. The several-generation migration cycle, which reaches from Texas to as far north as Canada and then to Mexico, is vividly detailed, from the laying of a single egg to the gathering of millions in Michoacan. When Dana’s “super monarch” granddaughter emerges from her chrysalis, the sight is jaw-dropping. Environmental challenges, such as anti-butterfly farming practices, are addressed but not emphasized: The guilt factor is kept to a minimum.
What differentiates the film from mere cinematography-at-its-finest is a story about the better side of humans, specifically the real people who first wondered where monarchs go in the winter. Meet Fred Urquhart (Gordon Pinsent), who is introduced as a monarch-obsessed child in Ontario, Canada, in the 1920s. Urquhart’s lifelong quest to solve the mystery of the disappearing monarchs begins optimistically enough. In 1945, he marries fellow scientist Norah Patterson (Patricia Phillips), who shares his obsession.
Victories, such as finding a tag that will stick to the butterflies and successfully enlisting thousands of citizen scientists across North America to affix them, mark the earlier days of Urquhart’s quest. But as the years pass and the mystery remains unsolved, you can feel Urquhart’s growing despair. Finally, in 1973, after nearly 40 years, the case starts to crack when we’re introduced to American Ken Brugger (Shaun Benson) as he drives in the Michoacan mountains through a storm that downs thousands of monarchs.
Two years later, Brugger and his Mexican wife, Catalina Aguado (Stephanie Sigman), finally track the monarchs down to Cerro Pelon. The rather frail Urquhart then manages the journey to the peak of the 10,000-foot mountain, validating his life’s work and proving that sometimes, happy endings don’t just occur in the movies.
“The Flight of the Butterflies” is playing at Imax theaters nationwide, including twice daily at the National Museum of Natural History’s Samuel S. Johnson Imax Theater (10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, www.si.edu/imax/movie/71). Tickets are $9 and may be purchased in advance on the museum Web site.