|Big Hero 6 (my rating)
|Big Hero 6 (Big Scruffy's and Little Scruffy's rating)
Another terrific week of fall films continues with three moving and illuminating documentaries and an animated delight:
The Emmy and Sundance award-winning director Judy Irving makes films unlike anybody else's, ornithological documentary poems in which Irving expresses, without fear of sounding stupid, her personal connection to the subject birds. Her first, 2005's "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," about a San Francisco street musician named Mark Bittner who took upon himself the care and feeding of the title birds, should be seen by every human being with a functioning heart. (Irving married Bittner after making the film.) Her latest, "Pelican Dreams," is an even more personal project which began when a friend told her she'd been tied up in traffic due to the "arrest" of a California brown pelican on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Irving follows the bird, nicknamed Gigi (as in G.G.), to her new home at a wildlife rehabilitation center, and the film includes interviews with several biologists who specialize in the treatment of waterfowl. The film offers an education in the nesting, mating and migration habits and threats to the survival of the pelican. (At least one-third die soon after birth because their bills are too short to get their share of the fish their parents catch for their brood.) The scientists show us how to tell a pelican's age from the color of its head and explain why they keep an emotional distance from their charges, always allowing the bird to initiate eye contact.
The film's power, though, derives more from Irving's and her fellow pelican lovers' relationships with Gigi and three siblings - Chorro, Morro, and Toro - than from the information it contains. I won't divulge the specific fates of these birds (all are at least moderately happy), but we become invested in them, as much by virtue of Irving's expressions of feeling as by their intrinsic appeal. The personal touch is what separates Irving's work from mere "nature film" and captures the commonality and connection that can exist between species.
Another documentary of merit involving animals, Orlando Von Einsiedel's "Virunga" takes us to the Virunga National Park, deep in the eastern forests of the DRC, where an outmanned but determined team of rangers attempt to preserve endangered populations of species from elephants and hippopotami to the majestic and fearsome yet playful and lovable mountain gorillas at the movie's heart. These precious animals are threatened by poachers and by the guerilla warfare between the Congolese army and the (at the time of filming) newly formed rebel group M23. The park itself, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is jeopardized by the government's shady dealings with SOCO, a British oil exploration company keen to redraw the park's boundaries to permit drilling.
Von Einsiedel accompanies French freelance journalist Melanie Gouby as she meets with the venal government officials and morally bankrupt SOCO contractors (including one, now disavowed by the company, whom she secretly films vomiting out an assessment of African people - "primitive," "like children" - that's stomach-turning in its unreconstructed racism). This side of the film has much in common with another superb documentary from earlier this year, Rachel Boynton's "Big Men," about an American firm's attempts to extract oil from Ghana. Both are marked by reportorial rigor and no small amount of physical peril on the part of the filmmakers, though I wish Von Einsiedel had better explicated the wherefores and whys of M23's campaign of terror, as it most proximately threatens Virunga.
But the beating heart of the movie lies with the mountain gorillas, the valiant corps of rangers, and Emmanuel de Merode, the Belgian prince who has served as warden of the Virunga preserve for many years and tells his men, as they draw their guns to stave off possible incursion by M23, "I will be the last one to leave." You've not seen anything quite like a mountain gorilla being tickled; it's worth the price of admission by itself. As with "Pelican Dreams," bring tissues; a double feature would be just too emotionally draining.
I enjoyed Kevin Gordon's documentary "True Son," about '12 Stanford alum Michael Tubbs' return to his hometown of Stockton, California, where at 22 he ran for one of six City Council seats. The film chronicles his campaign and features the charismatic Tubbs as well his field director, Lange Luntao (then a freshly minted Harvard grad) and campaign manager (and gay activist) Nicholas Hatten . While only 72 minutes in length, the film paints a picture of Stockton (which Forbes had recently ranked as the nation's most miserable city) in two halves: the gated enclaves of the wealthy north side and the crime-infested and poverty-torn streets of Tubbs' south side, where children in grade school recount the shootings they've witnessed. More importantly, the film shows the true, totally unglamorous face of politics, especially at the local level but even in presidential campaigns, where for all the high-minded talk, results come down to who gets their voters to the polls on the given day.
Finally, a recommendation for "Big Hero 6," Disney Animation's appealingly inclusive feature about a kid roboticist named Hiro, his even smarter brother, Tadashi, and Wasabi, Honey Lemon, Go Go, and Fred, Tadashi's fellow nerds at SFT - San Fransokyo Tech. Tadashi's mentor, Professor Callahan (voiced by James Cromwell), convinces Hiro not to sell his telepathic microbots to nefarious corporate synarchist Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk), who launches a dastardly plot to steal and use them for world domination. To thwart him, the team (minus Tadashi, who perishes alongside Callahan in a mysteriously set fire) recruits Baymax, the enormous white creature you've seen on all the billboards, who turns out to be a health-care robot (a genius idea). The first half, and especially a scene of Baymax struggling to maneuver around Hiro's furniture-cluttered room, is marked by tremendous visual and compositional wit (Fred, more a fanboy than a scientist himself, is the standout among the sidekicks). The plot-heavy second half lacks the same charm; you might say directors Don Hall and Chris Williams left their heart in San Fransokyo. But "Big Hero 6" finds its form in a surprisingly poignant moment near the end and a couple more clever plot twists.
The Scruffies consensed on a rating of two paws. Big awarded three paws in appreciation of the movie's strong storyline and good humor. Little was pretty much inconsolable once Hiro's big brother died (there are too many scary or sad moments for very young kids), so only one paw from him. That averages out to two Scruffy paws out of four.