Nature documentaries don’t often warrant reviewing since their purpose is primarily to educate, not entertain. But many nature documentaries like Pelican Dreams often combine traditional nature photography with purposeful narratives that inject personality into the art form.
Pelican Dreams focuses on a young California Brown Pelican that was discovered wandering in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge. When she is taken to a nature sanctuary to find out what is wrong with her she is underweight and appears to be confused. This inspires documentarian Judy Irving (who previously directed another avian documentary, 2003’s The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill) to learn about the life of these pelicans and why “G.G.” (the name she gives the pelican for where she was discovered) ended up on the bridge.
She first begins by learning about the mating habits and adolescence of these pelicans at an island offshore of California where they breed. Irving contemplates their emotions, like how scary it must be to first learn to fly. In fact, one of the more unexpected aspects of Pelican Dreams is how the narrative style is far more personal than most documentaries. Irving reflects on her personal connection with pelicans, including her dreams about flying, and why they have such an impact on her. Later, she even introduces her husband, Mark Bittner (who also worked on this documentary) to an injured pelican named Morro, a bird that was cared for Bill and Dani Nicholson, who rehabilitate pelicans in their own backyard. It’s not a common technique of most nature documentaries to exhibit such a personal connection, but it adds a unique element to the film. It might not be an approach that is appreciated by those who prefer a less engaged narrator in nature documentaries, but it’s certainly not overbearing.
Much of the second half of the documentary is about the impact humans have on pelicans today, most notably from the pesticide DDT before it was banned. While brown pelicans were taken off the endangered species list in 2009, they have begun to cause the usual problems with overpopulation in human-settled areas and compete with other species (including humans) for food. Some problems are unavoidable – one of pelicans’ main foods is anchovies, which humans fish in large numbers – and Irving steers clear of common problems of environmental documentaries by not overly shaming humanity or attempting to push an agenda that is unrealistic. In other words, this isn’t a documentary that shakes its finger at humanity, especially since so much of the documentary focuses on the compassionate humans like the Nicholsons and veterinarian Monte Merrick who care for injured pelicans (and it’s worth noting that some of the pelicans’ issues might even be the result of overpopulation directly because of the conservation efforts).
Being a nature documentary, Pelican Dreams is filled with excellent camerawork of pelicans in flight – particularly the beautiful final shots – which I always thought were strange-looking animals. However, while watching this documentary I learned to appreciate the unique gawky, but graceful, movements of these birds. I never thought I would think that about pelicans, so on that level alone Irving accomplished what she set out to do with this documentary.
Film Review Rating 3 out of 5 : See it … It’s Good
Pelican Dreams will open at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and at the Angelika Film Center in New York, and at the Royal, Playhouse 7, and Town Center in Los Angeles on November 7.