One way or another you’ll find yourself saying, “Awwwwww.” The adorable baby animals and the grace and kindness of the people who care for them are guaranteed to warm every heart in the theater.
In Borneo, Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas rescues orangutans orphaned by developers who cut down the jungle to produce palm oil. In Kenya, Dame Daphne M. Sheldrick provides a home for the baby elephants orphaned by poachers. More than five thousand miles apart, the two women care for different animals but share the same goal: to raise the babies without taming them, so they can return to a natural life in the wild. Morgan Freeman narrates the story, taking us back and forth as we see the newest babies arrive and the adolescents “graduate.” The goal is to nurture them only as long as they need help and then find them a safe home in a nature preserve. They are “under human care but not human control; they need to retain their wildness.”
Some of the animals arrive traumatized. A baby elephant who saw humans kill his mother has to learn these humans are different; they just want to feed and protect him. Amazingly, the other orphaned elephants gather around to reassure him that he is finally safe. They show him that a giant-sized bottle can be a good way to get milk. The milk, by the way, is a special formula developed by Dame Daphne over 24 years, making it possible for the first time to raise an infant elephant without a mother. Unlike mother elephants, humans are not big enough to cast protective shadows to prevent sunburn, so Dame Daphne and her colleagues rub sunblock on the tender ears of the baby elephants instead. And elephants do not sleep well alone, so the keepers curl up near them at night. These are the cutest pachyderms on screen since the baby elephants marched to the Mancini soundtrack in “Hatari.”
The elephants are social creatures who create a community of their own. In one very touching scene, when the now “ex-orphans” are brought to a sort of halfway house to get used to living away from the humans the current residents somehow sense that newcomers are arriving and come to the drop-off point to welcome them. The orangutans interact more directly with their human care-givers, draping themselves along their backs and hugging their chests. Dr. Galdikas and her crew have built a contraption for swinging and climbing to teach them the skills they need to find food and a safe place to sleep — a literal jungle gym. She teaches them more than skills for survival; she makes each one of them feel special and cared for. “As long as they feel loved,” she says, “they’ll have the confidence they need.”
The movie is empathetic but respectful to the animals. It enlarges our circle of compassion by reacquainting us with our fellow residents of the planet. Yet, it avoids getting cutesy or overly anthropomorphic. These are not pets and they are not being tamed. They are temporary guests, learning what they need to know so they can go home. In the early scenes, we see the orangutans covered with shampoo and sharing a plate of pasta with Dr. Galdikas to the tune of bouncy American pop tunes such as Hank Williams’ “Jumbalya.” Then as they return to the wild, the soundtrack turns African, more serious and stirring, and we share the mixed feelings of these dedicated people who have cared for the animals for so long. We are happy that they are going home but know they will be missed. We are hopeful for their future but worried that the wilderness left for them is shrinking every day.
This is everything a family movie should be: touching, funny, and inspiring. And with a brisk 40-minute running time no one has to sit still for too long. The IMAX 3D format may be overwhelming for children under five, but anyone older than that will find the baby animals hard to resist, the scenery breathtaking, and the devotion of Dr. Galdikas and Dame Daphne deeply moving.
Parents should know that there is some discussion of how the animal babies became orphans and about predators in the wild.
Family discussion: Why do these programs return the animals to the wild instead of keeping them safely cared for by humans? How are the orangutans and elephants alike and how are they different? What surprised you about their behavior and abilities? What can we do to help protect these animals?
If you like this, try: “March of the Penguins” and “Deep Sea 3D”
The first person to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with Wild in the subject line will get darling little stuffed baby orangutan. Tell me your favorite wild animal and don’t forget your address!