Wildebeests migrating across rivers. Mountain gorillas lurking in misty jungles. Elephants trekking across parched lands.
It’s the sort of footage we’ve seen before. But “Wild Africa,” a short documentary in its world premiere at the Museum of Science Mugar Omni Theater, aims for something more legendary, casting the continent’s storms and droughts, and their effects on flora and fauna, as a heroic struggle.
As a rousing score thunders, narrator Helen Bonham Carter promises a journey worthy of a fantasy movie: “An adventure through epic landscapes to distant seas.” In menacing tones, Carter eats up screenwriter Mike Slee’s over-the-top script. “Who knows what’s lurking in those shrinking pools?” Villainous crocodiles, of course. The apes’ plight is made extra perilous, for on their “doorstep, the restless earth often rumbles.” Cue a nearby volcanic peak erupting, as if the gorillas were about to be attacked by orcs from Mount Doom. I imagine the sequence is even more impressive in IMAX, though that format was not available for this review.
Veteran directors Slee (“Flight of the Butterflies”), Neil Nightingale (“Walking With Dinosaurs”), and Patrick Morris (“Enchanted Kingdom”) whip out every trick in the nature documentarian’s book: time lapse photography of exploding flowers, macro close-ups of lizards and snakes, underwater footage of swimming elephants. A contraption called the Spydercam, suspended from wires, captures vertiginous shots that plunge down tree trunks to the rainforest floor. With all the flyover footage sweeping us from chilly Mount Kenya to the Okavango Delta in Botswana to the Egyptian desert shores of the Red Sea, it’s amazing that the myriad wildlife weren’t scared off by the sound of helicopters.
That said, the photography, aided by amped-up color grading, is gorgeous. Close-ups of alpine rivulets transform the interplay of water and ice into kinetic Impressionist art. Blurry footage of lions caught in a downpour feels curiously melancholic. Perfectly framed, thousands of flamingos filmed in Kenya’s Lake Bogoria are reduced to works of abstract graphic design.
Oddly, while BBC Earth’s “Wild Africa” is set in the real world, there’s no mention of poaching, jungle deforestation, or the degradation of coral reefs. We get an idealized Africa, as if never touched by humans. It’s a lovely fantasy, but a fantasy all the same.
★ ★ ½
Directed by Neil Nightingale, Patrick Morris, and Mike Slee. Written by Slee. Narrated by Helena Bonham Carter.
At Museum of Science.
42 minutes. Unrated (nothing scary except a crocodile attack).