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Movie review

Close enough to feel the barnacles

A 52-foot-long humpback whale and her newborn calf swim in the South Pacific atoll of Moorea in the Imax documentary. A 52-foot-long humpback whale and her newborn calf swim in the South Pacific atoll of Moorea in the Imax documentary. (Franco Banfi for 3D Entertainment distribution Ltd.)
Email|Print| Text size + By Janice Page
Globe Correspondent / February 15, 2008

You take your chances when you go on a whale-watching cruise. Maybe you'll get to see the majestic marine mammals; maybe all you'll get is seasick. Nature decides.

But with "Dolphins and Whales 3D: Tribes of the Ocean," you're guaranteed the experience you came for: an up-close look so realistic you might actually duck to avoid a passing tail fin.

Created by the same filmmakers previously behind "Sharks 3D" and "Ocean Wonderland," this latest Imax documentary is the least colorful of the series, but it's also the most focused. It plunges you into the water for the entire 42 minutes of the film - never surfacing and never straying from its straightforward mission of education and awareness-building.

That means you will meet dozens of whales and dolphins (not to mention one lumbering manatee and a supporting cast of smaller sea life) and you will learn everything from what they weigh to how they play. Without preaching, the filmmakers hope to make you think about issues of sustainability and survival. They might even make you swear off eating sashimi, but that would just be a bonus.

Director Jean-Jacques Mantello and cinematographer Gavin McKinney have gone to extraordinary lengths to bring viewers inside the lives of humpback whales, belugas, orcas, bottlenose dolphins, and other at-risk cetaceans. Shooting with high-definition cameras designed to be more mobile and less disruptive than standard Imax 3D equipment, they spent three years and $6 million gathering underwater footage from far-flung locations. The result is sometimes stunning: Imagine sidling up to a whale while it nurses its calf or swallows an entire school of fish in one gulp. One has to appreciate the patience and luck it takes to capture that sort of thing in the wild.

But most of this film isn't about specific moments, actions, or dramas. Presented by Jean-Michel Cousteau (son of Jacques), "Dolphins and Whales 3D: Tribes of the Ocean" is a gentle underwater ballet with low-key music and olde-style introductions of each new marine species.

It's never too scary for young viewers and it's seldom about dazzling with coral-reef hues. The documentary dives to where each murky body of water looks pretty much like the next, so it's hard to differentiate Tonga from Canada, though we trust that both were visited.

Narrator Daryl Hannah softens and plumps the fact-heavy script provided by Jon Michael Johnson and Elisabeth Mantello. Hannah is an inspired choice, not just because she once captured human hearts as Madison the mermaid in "Splash," but because her passion for environmentalism shows through in each convincingly spoken word.

"I feel like I'm on a mission," the actress/activist said during an interview when the film premiered recently at the New England Aquarium. Besides lending her voice to numerous causes and her own eco-video blog, she owns vegetable-oil-powered El Caminos and a couch made of lichen. "I grew up in a time of really conspicuous consumption," she explained. "That paradigm has got to change. The American dream has got to change."

"Dolphins and Whales" simply argues we make it a sea change.

Janice Page can be reached at jpage@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

Dolphins and Whales 3D: Tribes of the Ocean

Directed by: Jean-Jacques Mantello

Written by: Jon Michael Johnson and Elisabeth Mantello

Narrated by: Daryl Hannah

At: New England Aquarium

Running time: 42 minutes

Unrated (suitable for all audiences)

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