“Flipper,” the lovable dolphin of 1960’s television, as the song goes, lived “in a world full of wonder, flying thereunder, under the sea.” For a new generation, who want their underwater shows in glistening Technicolor comes Echo, a bottlenose Pacific dolphin and star of “Dolphin Reef,” Disneynature’s new documentary premiering this week on Disney+.
Narrated by Natalie Portman and populated by underwater creatures that look as though they sprung from the imaginations of Disney’s animators by way of H.P. Lovecraft, “Dolphin Reef” is the educational but cutesy story of life on a Pacific Ocean coral reef.
The star, Echo, is a rambunctious youngster learning the ropes of life on the reef from mother Kumu. The high-spirited calf, however, is more interested in adventures and exploring his world full of wonder than learning how to stay safe and contribute to the pod. It’s easy to see how Echo’s eye could wander down there. Director Keith Scholey captures the vivid beauty and otherworldly weirdness of life in Echo’s ecosystem. There are the deadly cuttlefish whose skin strobes different colours as they attack and the phenomenon of “sand poop,” whixh is exactly what you think it is. “Given enough time,” Oscar winner Portman says, “Parrot Fish can poop entire tropical beaches.”
A close-call or two, however, gives Echo the push he needs to become an adult. “Being locked in an ocean at night gives you a whole new appreciation for your mother,” Portman says. “It has been a huge wakeup call for Echo. Time has run out. He can simply not rely on Kumu to protect him anymore. He must learn to take care of himself, once and for all.”
Along the way are lessons in how dolphins build communities and use their unique physiologies to protect their pods. We learn about synchronized sleeping—one hemisphere of the brain sleeps while the other hemisphere remains awake—and their skin’s antibacterial properties, which may help stop infections in open wounds. It’s an interesting, accessible nature lesson wrapped in an aquatic coming-of-age story, although one or two of Echo’s close scraps with mortality may be too intense for very young children.
Portman’s narration runs from folksy—”Here’s how the whole reef thing works in a nutshell…”—to serious and sympathetic as the tone of the film changes.
“Dolphin Reef” may not be as action packed as an episode of “Flipper”—Echo does not help solve crimes or do a “tail walk”—but its beautiful cinematography and engaging storytelling make its message of interconnected community—whether marine or human—resonate. “They rely on their extended family for comfort, safety and survival,” Portman says in the film’s final moments, “and now they need to rely on us as well. Their world is our world.”