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Movie Review

Lush ‘South Pacific’ lacks depth

Jawi with a whale shark in “Journey to the South Pacific.”

IMAX Corporation and MacGillivray Freeman Films

Jawi with a whale shark in “Journey to the South Pacific.”

Though stories probably aren’t what people are looking for in the IMAX 3-D nature films shown in the New England Aquarium’s formidable Simons Theatre, they can dim the luster of the images. “Journey to the South Pacific’’ offers its share of stunning sights of the “Coral Triangle’’ — exotic flora and fauna which, though familiar to anyone who has browsed the nature channels on cable TV, are here seen in meticulous, radiant detail on a 65-by-85-foot screen. But the film burdens these visual treats with a narrative that suffers from the maladies of animal anthropomorphism, cultural paternalism, crass environmentalist preaching — and an overbearing soundtrack.

The story features irrepressible Jawi (Jawi Mayor), a 13-year-old from the tiny village of Sawinggrai on the island of Gam in West Papua, Indonesia. Unlike the Indonesia of political oppression and mass slaughter depicted in Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Act of Killing,” Jawi’s home is a paradise where folks live in harmony with each other and their environment. Like a modern-day Huck Finn, Jawi spends his days swimming, fishing, camping, boating, exploring caves, and playing the ukulele for his pals. But then the “Kalabia,” a fishing trawler confiscated by the authorities for poaching and converted by Conservation International into a floating schoolhouse, pays a call on the island, and hundreds of kids run to the pier like 19th-century town folk on the Mississippi when they hear the cry “Steamboat a-comin’!”

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Jawi has been picked to travel on the “Kalabia” for two months to tour the archipelago and learn about the coral reef. It’s a program, as one of the onboard scientists explains, that teaches the native children “something about their own backyard,” and also teaches the audience, none too subtly, about the perils of development, ecological deprivation, and global warming. Nothing wrong with that, but maybe there is a better way of integrating these lessons into the rest of the film.

Meanwhile, Jawi’s voice-over narration joins that of Cate Blanchett in relating the perfunctory narrative. As the camera encounters a hawksbill turtle feeding, with the pink mist of munched coral puffing out from its loudly munching beak, Blanchett pedantically notes, “Like any village the coral reef has its fair share of characters!” Or when Jawi confesses about an upcoming challenge, swimming with 40-foot-long but harmless sea creatures, “the more I try not to think about whale sharks, the more I think of whale sharks!”

But annoyance at these intrusions vanishes when Jawi actually does swim with the whale sharks, playfully dropping a handful of shrimp into a maw that could easily swallow him, along with a dozen of his friends. It is one of many such sequences that arouse sheer wonder — sometimes all it takes is a shot of a green full moon hanging in a purple sky over a lavender sea to achieve a mini-epiphany. This journey teaches the most when it allows the image to speak for itself.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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