By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The lemurs are among the earliest of primates, having coexisted with dinosaurs millions of years ago and then outlived them by plenty. But they’re extinct now in their native Africa. Instead, hundreds of species of lemurs have adopted a new home.
There, in an island country in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa –- the fourth-largest island in the world -– and with no natural predators, the highly evolved but currently endangered lemurs have become a diverse and colorful population, including among its variety of species the cave-dwelling ringtail lemur, the singing indri lemur, and the tiny but tough mouse lemur.
Island of Lemurs: Madagascar is a nature documentary about Dr. Patricia C. Wright’s mission to help the endearingly peculiar lemurs, who turned up as castaways millions of years ago (“lemur” means “wandering spirit” in Latin) in the Republic of Madagascar.
But because the vast majority of the forest has been burned away by humans (who showed up about 2,000 years ago) in the name of slash-and-burn agriculture -– that is, to make room for profitable farming and grazing fields — lemurs have not had an easy adjustment in their shaky new habitat.
By now, about 90 percent of Madagascar’s forests and ecosystems have disappeared as a result of farming or fire. And the lemurs live in those trees so frequently being set on fire. Consequently, about the same percentage of the 103 known lemur species are now considered endangered.
The golden bamboo lemurs are the most critically endangered of all. Until the 1980s, when Dr. Wright finally discovered a few stragglers in what was left of the picturesque rainforest, they were thought to be extinct.
As the film opens, only two golden bamboo lemurs –- so-called because they consume bamboo shoots and are somehow able to metabolize the toxic levels of cyanide in them — are living on the preserved land. But Dr. Wright’s team of primatologists and conservationists attempt to find additional potential mates to repopulate the species.
And that means braving an intimidating wildfire to rescue several of them.
Now, as a result of their efforts, there are perhaps a hundred or so of these matriarchal mammals, photogenic creatures with their bulging, unblinking eyes and their energetic dances and pounces as they leap from treetop to treetop.
The director, David Douglas (At the Max), a longtime cinematographer who serves here as his own cinematographer and somehow manages not to seem intrusive with his you-are-there efforts, captured his footage with Imax 3-D cameras, focusing on not only the gorgeous landscape but those crazy-cute creatures that have taken refuge in Ranomafana National Park and the preservation efforts of Stony Brook University of New York anthropology professor Wright.
The script by producer Drew Fellman, with sad and sober but bemused narration by the ubiquitous Morgan Freeman, explores the unique biodiversity of Madagascar with perhaps a shade less outrage than it ought to display –- even in what might be thought of as a kidflick.
Protective parents should know that there is essentially no violence but for the potential threat of wildfires.
And there is at least a note of irony struck along with the slightly optimistic message about the complex problem at hand (one that the film doesn’t solve but does at least shine a light on) as “I Will Survive” plays over the end credits.
So we’ll endanger 2½ stars out of 4. Because it was shot in the 3-D Imax process, the audience does indeed get to experience the irresistible lemurs in up-close-and-personal privileged moments, while the ‘G’ rating and well-under-an-hour running time makes Island of Lemurs: Madagascar a brief but absorbing and memorable infotainment for the family audience.