I don’t mean to be morbid, but documentaries everywhere will certainly suffer when Morgan Freeman dies.
The man’s voice has led us through many fiction tales, like 1995’s hopeful “The Shawshank Redemption” and 1997’s stark “Se7en,” and kept us enthralled in a frozen world in 2005’s “March of the Penguins.” And during “Born to be Wild 3D,” which chronicles two women’s attempts to save orphaned elephants in Kenya and orangutans in Borneo, it is Freeman who guides us, introducing us to “two real-life fairy godmothers.” The documentary is (sadly) only 40 minutes long, but it’s easy to get lost into a feel-good tale when it’s told to us by such a soothing voice.
And trust me, you’ll feel good. When so many of our big-screen offerings these days are either computer-generated, street-smart animals (like “Hop” and “Yogi Bear”) or evil machines and aliens hell-bent on our destruction (the underperforming “I Am Number Four” and “Battle: Los Angeles”), it’s pleasant to actually see real people doing real things to help our world up on the big screen. Who wouldn’t love this movie? It taps into our love of good deeds, and primatologist Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas and elephant authority Dame Daphne Sheldrick are protagonists you are truly pleased to see succeed.
The film introduces us to the two women and their missions through some nifty graphics, zooming in on a map of the world with Sheldrick in Kenya and Galdikas in Borneo, each working with their animals of choice. “Born to be Wild 3D” then switches between the two of them, spending a little time with each and introducing background information before building independent narratives.
You learn that Sheldrick established the elephant orphanage after her husband, David, died; the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust lives on in his memory on the edge of the Nairobi National Park in Kenya, and has helped more than 200 orphaned elephants return to the wild. Similarly devoted to wildlife is Galdikas, who began her work with orangutans in 1971 and has since developed her research into Orangutan Foundation International, which she runs with her son and numerous other employees who care for the 300 orangutans that live there. Each woman works with the young animals to maintain their wildness, so when they’re introduced back into their natural environments, they can survive on their own.
That may all sound somewhat dry, but it’s the animals and their interactions with their caretakers that energize the film and will produce numerous awe-inspired, appreciative laughs. Countless scenes here are delightful in their genuineness: A young elephant squeezes its trunk through fence-posts to splash around in a trough of water and grab a drink; orangutans burp after gulping down milk and eat soap while bathing themselves; the elephants kick around soccer balls with their caretakers and crowd around them in a loving pile; an orangutan playfully steals more and more noodles from Galdikas’s plate as she sits down to eat. These animals obviously have personality, and “Born to be Wild 3D” captures them wonderfully.
You’ll learn stuff, too. Sheldrick and her staff have to slather baby elephants’ ears with sunscreen, because in the wild, their mothers’ bodies provide shade and protect from the sun, something I didn’t know. Similarly interesting is the fact that baby orangutans physically don’t break contact with their mothers for their first year of life, explaining why they are so close to their caretakers.
Some moments are sad, of course – there’s a baby elephant whose tail was bit off by hyenas that attacked his mother, and the elephants can’t sleep without someone else in their rooms to proactively watch over them – but for the most part, the G rating is accurate. Though the baby animals are obviously orphans for a reason, the film doesn’t delve into that pain too much, so young children won’t be scared by what previously happened. Instead, they’ll get lost in watching the documentary, since its images are so beautiful – if you can see it in 3-D and in an IMAX theater, do. The scenes are crisp and the 3-D useful, so monkeys swinging at you and the elephants’ animated trunks seem all-the-more real.
“As long as they feel loved, they’ll build the confidence they need later in life,” Galdikas says of how she treats the orangutans, a truism that any parent can appreciate. And any child will understand that, too, if they’re treated with the perfect family film that is “Born to be Wild 3D.”