Count on IMAX nature documentaries to deliver visual and aura splendor. As entertainments, though, they can be a mixed bag. Humpback Whales, directed by IMAX maestro Greg MacGillivray (Everest) with nicely spare narration written by Stephen Judson and gracefully voiced by Ewan McGregor, fires on all cylinders. Aggressively upbeat, informative and immersive in glorious 3-D and IMAX, the movie puts up close with these majestic 55-ft long, 40-ton giants in their gorgeous habitats of Tonga, Alaska and Hawaii. The IMAX screen gives the creatures plenty of real estate to display wingspans wider than those of a Learjet, their mysterious and acrobatic leaps and spins into the air, and their hauntingly beautiful and richly varied vocalizations.
Just ask anyone who’s ever listened to the landmark 1970 record album “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” recorded by marine scientist Roger Payne – an event that helped radically shift the ways in which we perceive and treat the animal kingdom. MacGillivray and his crew capture astounding footage of whale calves imitating their mothers, leviathans migrating en masse, wondrously circling a researcher’s boat, and feeding on krill by creating a virtual “net” of bubbles. The movie also joyfully celebrates the comeback the whales have made after the practice of mass whaling nearly wiped them off the face of the earth.
But even with drive toward protection that surfaced in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Humpback Whales demonstrates that today’s whale population is only 40% of what it once was, due to countries including Japan, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Russia and Alaskan communities in the U.S. persisting in the yearly slaughter of many hundreds of whales. And then there are the perils of climate change and sonar pollution, topics the documentary sidesteps completely. Every whale looks and sounds incredible in Humpback Whales. And the movie highlights the exemplary work of whale advocates like Jim Darling (who records the humpback males’ singing) and the volunteers who rescue whales entangled in sea debris. For landlubbers or the more adventurous, Humpback Whales is worth the journey. ***