Island of Lemurs: Madagascar is a beautifully shot nature documentary that made me want to book a one-way flight to Madagascar.
The movie succeeds where other similar efforts have failed, especially by balancing conservation concerns with a hopeful attitude for the future. It's an important film in a world where the main way through which people come to know lemurs is the singing and dancing King Julien of the Madagascar franchise.
Some 60 million years ago, an asteroid slammed into the Earth and killed off most of the dinosaurs. One group of African post-apocalyptic survivors was a small group of prosimian primates. While some of those early primates remained on the African mainland and would eventually give rise to monkeys, apes, and eventually humans, others were washed to sea on a floating armada of tree parts. The critters clinging to their rafts eventually wound up on the shores of Madagascar, where they'd evolve into the diversity of lemurs, lorises, and galagos, we know today.
The 40-minute Morgan Freeman-narrated 3D IMAX documentary released today focuses on a handful of the lemur species living in and around Ranomafana National Park. The story of the lemurs' arrival on Madagascar is all told in the first few minutes, before the opening credits. The remainder of the film alternates primarily between the story of Patricia Wright, an anthropologist at Stony Brook University and director of Centre ValBio, a Stony Brook-run field station directed by Wright at the edge of Ranomafana, and the suffering of lemurs at the ends of human activity.
When Wright first came to Madagascar, it was to search for the Great Bamboo lemur, a species that was thought extinct. But in 1986, Wright found a scant few had still survived. There are just two living in the protected forests of Ranomafana, a father and a daughter, and the film follows Wright as she tracks down others of their species elsewhere on the island so that she can play matchmaker.
For millions of years, the lemurs thrived on Madagascar, free from the variety of predators their ancestors faced on the mainland. But that all changed after humans arrived two thousand years ago. In that time, ninety percent of the island's forests have been burned to the ground, replaced with agricultural fields and space for cows to graze. There are nearly 100 lemur species, but only 8 percent of them are listed by the IUCN as "least concern." Some species, like the Great Bamboo Lemur, are among the world's species most prone to extinction, with only three hundred individuals left in the wild.
The two alternatingly depressing and hopeful narratives were punctuated by a handful of more straightforward natural history segments, the longest of which belongs to the iconic ringtail lemurs and their female-led social hierarchy. Others focused on dancing sifakas, scientists studying the tiny mouse lemurs, and the singing Indri.
The film probably doesn't need to be seen in 3D to be enjoyed fully, but the extra dimension didn't detract from the experience either. The soundtrack, on the other hand, seemed a bit contrived and overly saccharine. The lemurs' pre-human dominion over the island was accompanied by the opening to "Thus Spake Zarathustra," the Great Bamboo lemurs courtship was set to "Be My Baby," and a Malagasy rendition of "I Will Survive," re-written from the perspective of a lemur struggling against environmental destruction.
Island of Lemurs is a short, entertaining documentary that manages to provide interesting, accurate scientific information in a way that is both accessible to children without infantilizing the audience. The name lemur is derived from a Roman word that roughly means "wandering spirit," which has become oddly appropriate. As the film explains, if they don't get our help, the lemurs really will become the ghosts of Madagascar.
Images via Island of Lemurs (IMAX/Warner Brothers)