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Review: ‘Born to Be Wild 3D’ Is a Vast, Sweeping Visual Experience

Born to Be Wild 3D is standard scientific IMAX fare that trades on an indisputable fact: Ecologically friendly movies about cute animals are just about impossible to resist. That’s even more pronouncedly the case when they unfold across settings as exotically picturesque as the wilds of Kenya and Borneo, with sweeping helicopter shots of the savanna and jungles molded to close-ups of the sweet, sad faces of orphaned orangutans and elephants.

Throw in the honey tones of Morgan Freeman’s soothing narrative diction and keep things to an astoundingly brisk 40 minutes and you’ve got a recipe for success, albeit of the sort that’s best seen as a companion to a larger trip (a zoo or science center visit, for example) than a destination in itself.

Director David Lickley depicts the work and passions of Dr. Biruté Galdikis and Dame Daphne Sheldrick, the former a Bornean scientist and an advocate for orangutans, the latter a Kenyan conservationist and expert in raising elephants. The women have devoted their lives to the rehabilitation and care of young orphaned orangutans and elephants, respectively, and the picture takes you inside their work to that end, splitting its time between the Daphne & David Sheldrick Animal Orphanage and Dr. Galdikis’ Camp Leakey.

The 40 minute runtime prohibits much in the way of substantive exploration, but the filmmaker offers an engaging overview of the lifecycles experienced by rescued animals in each setting, outlining the care they receive while capturing a host of heartwarming behavioral tidbits (a baby elephant suffers from nightmares, an orangutan helps himself to some spaghetti etc.).

To get the most possible out of the picture, see it on a true IMAX screen and not one of the copious, fraudulent imitators that have been popping up in theaters across the country. It’s an extraordinary, vast spectacle that’s only possible when properly conveyed in the giant screen format. Factor in the 3-D and at times the scale is so massive it almost overwhelms.

Some prospective audiences, those not at the whims of insistent adolescent viewers, will still chafe at the thought of paying even-slightly-lowered IMAX 3-D prices for a 40-minute documentary that is at its core the cinematic equivalent of a zoo trip. It’s hard to blame them. After all, the movie revels in the animals’ behavior as most other interesting details are cast aside.

There is not, for example, even the gentlest suggestion that one might criticize the bizarre human baby-like treatments afforded the animals at both facilities. The scientists remain one-dimensional, distanced figures. Their extraordinary, almost-sacrificial devotion to their charges is presented entirely at face value. One wonders what Werner Herzog, or another filmmaker who might have been better clued-in to the strangeness looming below the surface, could have made of the material.

But, at the end of the day, this is a movie about cute animals and the do-gooders that protect them, presented on a larger-than-life format. It’s an awesome spectacle and that’s enough.

The Upside: The movie offers a vast, sweeping visual experience when seen on a proper IMAX screen.

The Downside: It’s basically the sort of educational film one would expect to find at a zoo or science center exhibit.

On the Side: On a very simple level, it’s hard to dislike a 40-minute movie about cute animals doing interesting things.

Grade: B

Robert Levin has written dozens (if not hundreds) of reviews for Film School Rejects since his first piece in 2009. He is the film critic for amNewYork, one of the most widely circulated daily newspapers in New York City and the United States, and the paper's website amNY.com. He's a Brooklyn resident who tries very hard not to be a cliche.

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