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The Whale – Film Review

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The Whale - Luna
Luna © 2011 Paladin

It’s probably no accident that this fascinating, heartrending and beautifully photographed documentary about a little lost whale is being released around the same time as the heavily promoted but mostly fictional Dolphin Tale. When it comes to making the best use of your marine mammal entertainment dollar, however, this completely true tale is by far the better choice.

The story is told from the perspective of residents, researchers and government officials whose lives were changed by the appearance of a two-year-old Orca that wandered into postcard-picturesque Nootka Sound near Vancouver Island one summer. Narrator Ryan Reynolds (who executive produced the film with Scarlett Johansson) compares the young whale to a child who walks up a supermarket aisle, turns around and realizes his family is gone. Orcas are social creatures whose extended families normally stay together in pods for their entire lives, and Luna’s pod was assumed to live 200 nautical miles away.

The fact that Luna manages to thrive despite this separation “ran counter to everything we thought we knew,” says marine mammal scientist Lance Barrett-Lennard. Because experts believe the social needs of whales may be even stronger than those of humans, “we thought it would be like laying a baby in the forest. He’s Mowgli the Jungle Boy of whales.”

The Whale - Catherine Forbes
Catherine Forbes © 2011 Paladin

Perhaps to overcome loneliness, the friendly and inquisitive Luna begins interacting with humans. A timber worker who describes Luna pushing around floating 40-foot logs jokes that the whale should have been given goggles and a hardhat and nicknamed Bruno. Boaters who lean over to stroke Luna are charmed by his compliant and playful personality. Members of a nearby First Nations tribe regard the whale as the revered reincarnation of a dead chief.

Everything is going swimmingly, in other words, until the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans gets involved. Decreeing that continued contact could risk injury to humans and the whale, touching and even looking at Luna becomes a criminal offense that comes with a potential $100,000 fine. (In a scene that sums up the overprotectiveness of a well-meaning bureaucracy at work, waterborne representatives of the government’s Luna Stewardship Project are seen advising would-be spectators, “Folks, this is not a watchable whale!”)

Almost nobody is happy with the new restrictions, including Luna, who tries to subvert the ban by sneaking up on boats before they can be warned away. When frustrated officials eventually decide Luna needs to be captured and transported elsewhere, suspicions about the government’s real intentions mobilize the community to take a stand that’s both touching and uplifting.

The Whale’s director/writer Michael Parfit and director Suzanne Chisholm were journalists dispatched to cover Luna’s story when he first became a local celebrity, an assignment they had no idea would begin a long and life-changing relationship. Using remarkable footage they shot over several years, they do an excellent job of making little lost Luna’s story compelling, inspiring and unforgettable.

[Rating:4.5 stars]