Review: ‘The Whale’ Needs to Swim in Deeper Waters

By  · Published on October 4th, 2011

Narrator Ryan Reynolds introduces us to the story of Luna by way of simple metaphor – it was as if he was a child in a grocery store, a child who turned around and found his family missing, no longer in the same aisle, and when he went looking for them, he went down the wrong aisle. In July of 2001, the two year old Orca whale calf appeared in Nootka Sound, a complex inlet on the northern west coast of Vancouver Island, an area that was hundreds of kilometers from the normal grounds of the Southern Resident Killer Whale of which Luna was a part (having been tracked by the scientists that study that community since soon after his birth in 1999). Luna was alone. Orcas do not do well alone.

What scientists know about the pod structure that Orcas live in hinges almost totally on one prevailing element – the pod is the most important thing. Orca families stay together forever. Those who study the whales have come to believe that their socialization needs are more profound and more strong than even those of humans. So what was Luna going to do, a veritable toddler alone in a wide stretch of sea? If he was another whale, Luna might have just faded away, but this was Luna, and if The Whale wants us to know one thing, it is this – Luna was special, Luna came to Nootka Sound for a reason, Luna was something different.

Luna started to make friends. Directors Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit don’t beat around the bush (seaweed?) when it comes to issues of assigned anthropomorphism when it comes to Luna. A whale? Making friends? Come on. But the film is packed with footage of Luna, not just from Chisholm and Parfit, but from a wide swath of others who loved the whale, and that footage makes it hard to say that Luna was not looking for friends, that he was not communicating with humans, that he was not replacing his familial bonds with the humans who chugged into his waters. On the most basic of levels, Luna appeared to be a charming and vibrant whale who possessed a trait too long assigned just to humans – Luna was really, really funny. But even Luna’s charm could not keep him away from getting embroiled in what turned into a bizarrely political brouhaha.

The principle villain in Luna’s journey is Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans who, believing that Luna needed limited contact with humans for everyone’s safety, eventually sent down a decree that forbade civilians from interacting with Luna – a decree that came with a steep fine (an upwards of one hundred thousand dollars) and the possibility of arrest. The order itself was both hilarious and heart-wrenching by its very design – people were not only banned from touching Luna, but even from looking at him. To enforce the order, the DFO dispatched a team to essentially babysit Luna as part of the “Luna Stewardship Project.” In an amusing sequence, the film shows the stewards attempting to send away spectators, people who refuse to let the law get in the way of being with Luna. The heart of The Whale rests on the charm of its star, and Luna does not let up when it comes to those put in charge of keeping him away from humans. Even the stewards were charmed by Luna. Even the stewards could not resist. Even they said it was different.

The filmmakers also gathered an impressive number of people who “knew” Luna to participate in the film – loggers, fishermen, residents of Nootka Sound’s town of Gold River, scientists, members of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation tribe (who believed Luna to be their reincarnated chief), workers from the freighter Uchuck III (the first boat Luna ever made contact with), and employees of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, just to name a few. But despite a large pool of talking heads, it’s hard to get a real feel for the story of Luna beyond the sense that he was special. The film is packed with footage of Luna, but it is not necessarily adeptly put together – careening between interviews, footage, and informational segments that don’t always flow consistently together. Reynolds’ narration does not help bind the disparate elements together, as it often feels a bit too off-the-cuff to illuminate the complicated story.

The full story of Luna is much more complex than the tale that The Whale tells may let on – the film presents a simplified version of Luna’s life in Nootka Sound. In reality, even Luna’s earliest days, those spent in his pod, were marked by chaos and strange occurrences, an important element to his story that is missing from The Whale. How did Luna come to be? The Whale focuses too much on mining the “why” of that question, in ways that are often richly emotional, if devoid of proper contextualization.

The husband and wife team behind the film, Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm, were originally sent to Nootka Sound to write a magazine piece about Luna. They too were ultimately sucked in by the charm of the little whale, so much so that the pair have made not just one feature-length documentary about Luna, but two (including 2007’s Saving Luna). That Parfit and Chisholm are not filmmakers by trade is not necessarily surprising, as The Whale’s main recommendation is an enthralling subject, not the technical elements that have gone into the film. But the film is a lovely, gentle documentary that should serve as a solid introduction to animal relations for the younger set.

The Upside: It’s a touching film about the possibilities of friendship between humans and animals, a solid schoolroom doc that should engage the littlest animal lovers.

The Downside: The film’s structure is too sterile and linear to draw connections, Ryan Reynolds’ narration flip-flops between being amusing and downright distracting, and it’s the sort of doc that presents an issue that’s never quite fleshed out enough to present real solutions.

On the Side: A whale! A really cute whale!

The Whale is currently in limited release.