The film, narrated by Morgan Freeman, focuses on the lemurs of Madagascar, the only place the primates live in the entire world; not even one has managed to live in captivity. Nearly 60 million years old, lemurs survived the extinction of the dinosaurs and traveled from Africa to Madagascar on trees, eventually developing on the island into various different species. Fast-forward all this time, though, and their existence is in jeopardy: When humans arrived in Madagascar 2,000 years ago, they kept burning down the forests where the lemurs lived until about 90 percent of the natural wildlife was gone.
Without that habitat, numerous kinds of lemurs are dying, and it’s difficult to accommodate the remaining ones into national parks, an initiative led by Dr. Patricia Wright, an expert who hopes to teach the citizens of Madagascar and outside scientists about why they should care about these creatures. And so the documentary begins with how the lemurs arrived in Madagascar—recreating how they must have floated on a tree trunk, bumped into whales, and jumped their way along the coast—and ends with them struggling to stay alive during huge fires that burn through their foliage.
Along the way, there’s also some general explanation of Madagascar’s economy and how its agriculture impacts the lemurs; discussion about Dr. Wright and how her scientists capture lemurs, collect information about them at their research station, and try to increase the lemur population through breeding (or playing “lemur matchmaker,” as Dr. Wright jokes); and various facts and figures about the animal. Some of these will clearly please younger viewers, like the tidbit that there were once lemurs the size of gorillas that were hunted into extinction, or the sound of lemurs singing duets with each other (the cacophony will remind you of dolphins, air horns, and car alarms), or the comparison of Dr. Wright’s information-gathering with alien abduction. But overall, these all feel like pieces of a story that isn’t being fully told.
For example, only a few lemur species are featured, like ring-tailed lemurs, but there’s only approximately five minutes about their matriarchal society before the film moves onto other things. The fact that lemurs raid human villages for food is also mentioned, but not followed up on—perhaps that’s a reason the people of Madagascar don’t really care if all the lemurs die in their forest-clearing fires? And there are some shots of Dr. Wright’s team of scientists traipsing through the forest, collecting samples and data, but none of them are spoken to at length about what drew them to the project. The documentary has tons of questions it could have asked, but just doesn’t.
Nevertheless, it’s beautiful—tons of majestic, colorful, and detailed overhead shots of mountains, cliffs, forests, all trapped in cloud and fog—and perhaps the story being so simplistic is actually beneficial for a younger audience. But when Dr. Wright says “I’m happiest when I’m alone in the forest with lemurs,” that shouldn’t be the documentary’s credo; it should dig deeper than that. “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” is visually striking enough, but its lack of serious context or questioning hurts its memorability.
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