Given what kids have had to go by, they might think that lemurs are like Sacha Baron Cohen’s animated King Julien character in “Madagascar”: furry creatures who spend half their time hanging with penguins in Central Park, and make funny noises that somehow remind you of the guy in those “Ali G” commercials. The IMAX 3-D nature documentary “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” aims to give us the facts about our most ancient primates. But the animals are so magically entertaining to watch here (helped by some gently mischievous narrative assists), the educational treatment is a fun time in its own right.
The film reunites narrator Morgan Freeman (can you believe “March of the Penguins” was almost a decade ago?) with director-cinematographer David Douglas and writer Drew Fellman, veterans of the 2011 orangutans-and-elephants documentary “Born to Be Wild 3D.” They dive into their latest subject by establishing lemurs as castaways. These not-quite-monkeys may have survived the asteroid strike that killed the dinosaurs, but they couldn’t dodge some subsequent, massive storm that sent a number of their kind floating from Africa to Madagascar. (Latin factoid: “Lemur” means “wandering spirit.”) With no natural predators on the massive island, lemurs thrived there, evolving into upwards of a hundred different species – even while going extinct everywhere else.
No matter which variety the film is spotlighting, they have a power to fascinate. Look – there’s one species endearingly “dancing” along a beach like it’s a sandy trampoline. There’s another yowling its part in a sort of rain-forest concert, mouth curiously puckered like a daffodil cup. We meet the greater bamboo lemur, all teddy-bear eyes and charming stalk-munching technique – and the conservation passion of Dr. Patricia Wright, a quiet-spoken American primatologist who intermittently guides our tour. And we’re reintroduced to animated fave the ring-tailed lemur, anthropomorphized as a breed of outlaw roaming over towering, craggy rock formations. (The movie’s 3-D is at its best when it’s simultaneously giving a feel for both the animals and the locale in this way.) Naturally, composer Mark Mothersbaugh’s sly score breaks into a spaghetti western jangle.
There’s a sense that burdensome ecological themes get streamlined in all of this. We’re told that lemurs are endangered, we’re given some basics on the damage humans have done in the historical blink they’ve spent on Madagascar, but the message is touched upon rather than relentlessly hammered home. That would be a downer, when the filmmakers are unmistakably after smiles of wonder. They’ve got a perfect subject for it.