“Flight of the Butterflies”
Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
Colorful monarchs are much more interesting than you could have imagined
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
Nature is always awesome, but sometimes she’s jaw-droppingly unbelievable.
Then, if we’re lucky — if the right wildlife saga intrigues the right filmmakers — the results can be mesmerizing.
Luc Jacquet’s “March of the Penguins” wasn’t merely a marvelous film and the surprise hit of the 2005 movie season; it also was a Hollywood game-changer, proving that well-made documentaries could hold their own against big-budget dramas. Walt Disney had demonstrated as much between 1948 and ’60, with his studio’s “True-Life Adventures” series, but — several generations later — the non-fiction genre had fallen out of mainstream favor, until Jacquet’s mind-bogglingly patient Emperor penguins came waddling along.
All of which brings us to “Flight of the Butterflies,” just now fluttering into Sacramento’s Esquire IMAX theater. And while these delicate winged insects admittedly aren’t as cute as tuxedo-clad penguins, they’re quite remarkable in their own right, as director Mike Slee’s 40-minute film makes abundantly clear.
At its core, “Flight of the Butterflies” is a lepidopterist’s mystery story, which Slee and co-scripter Wendy MacKeigan weave into a compelling depiction of the monarch butterfly’s unusual life cycle and amazing migratory habits.
Charles Foster Kane had his Rosebud; Fred Urquhart’s world changed as a result of PS 397.
And therein lies a tale…
The story begins in Toronto in the early 1920s, when as a boy Urquhart wondered where all the butterflies went each winter. This interest blossomed into an academic career as a zoology professor who maintained his fascination with butterflies; he and his wife, Norah, became obsessed with the concept of somehow tracking these winged insects.
But tracking meant tagging, a seemingly insurmountable issue: How could one tag something as delicate as a butterfly’s moisture-sensitive wing, without impairing its flight abilities?
Very carefully, as it turned out, and by 1940 Urquhart was successful; he began tagging monarchs with tiny labels that read “Send to Zoology University of Toronto Canada.”
What happened next, as depicted in Slee’s charming film, never would have been believed as fiction. Thanks to press releases and ads that Norah Urquhart placed in newspapers throughout North America, their embryonic Insect Migration Association enlisted thousands of volunteers across the United States and Canada to tag hundreds of thousands of butterflies, and then attempt to find them again, in order to track their migratory route.
As demonstrated by this film’s gallery of vintage newspaper photos and articles, joining the “butterfly brigade” became a cool thing to do in the free-spirited, counter-culture 1960s and early ’70s: a means of honoring good ol’ Mother Earth — remember, the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970 — while (hopefully) contributing to scientific research.
In August 1975, Minnesota junior high school students Jim Street and Dean Boen, assisted by their teacher Jim Gilbert, fastened tag number PS 397 to a butterfly, and then watched it fly away.
Meanwhile, fellow “citizen scientists” Ken Brugger and his wife, Catalina Aguado, were searching for monarchs in and around the Michoacan region of Mexico. Brugger, a textile engineer and businessman from Texas, had become one of Urquhart’s soldiers entirely by accident; while driving on a road through the Transvolcanic mountain belt one day, halfway between Morelia and Mexico City, he had been amazed to discover that a pounding rainstorm was covering the road — and his vehicle — with thousands upon thousands of dead butterflies.
Brugger had kept one of Urquhart’s newspaper ads for years; he got in touch, and soon he and Aguado spent every free moment looking for monarchs. Her similar interest was serendipitous — she remembered being enchanted by monarchs as a little girl — because Brugger, being color-blind, could not distinguish different insects by appearance (an intriguing detail not mentioned in this film, although it certainly should have been).
They searched, and they searched, and they searched. And then, on Jan. 2, 1975…
Well, heck; I have to leave you wanting to see this film to find out, right?
But I’ll add this much: Aguado made a memorable appearance on the cover of the August 1976 issue of National Geographic, a picture that remains famous — and breathtaking — to this day.
Fred and Norah Urquhart, Brugger and Aguado are played by actors in these re-created scenes, of course, but Slee handles his cast with a gentle touch, eschewing the phony-baloney bombast and overacting that infect so many television dramatizations. Nor do the factual details need to be enhanced; the saga is sufficiently fascinating in its own right.
Urquhart’s story is interwoven with cinematographer Simon De Glanville’s airborne and ground-level depictions of the monarch life-cycle, from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. The macro-photography is stunning throughout, although our glimpse inside a chrysalis is particularly breathtaking, thanks to advanced MRI and micro-CT scans. (Peter Parks, credited for macro photography and system design, has won two technical achievement Academy Awards for microscopic and special-effects photography.)
The most astonishing detail, however, concerns the monarch’s unusual generational phases. We’re certainly not surprised to learn that two or three generations of butterflies are required to make the initial trip north, while traveling from Mexico through the United States and up into eastern Canada. But then comes the corker: Once in Canada, the egg-laying adults somehow know to create a “super generation” that, when it emerges and grows through caterpillar infancy and becomes a butterfly, is larger, stronger and lives eight to 10 times longer than the “regular” generations.
These “super butterflies” then travel the entire distance from Toronto to Mexico, a journey of roughly 2,500 miles, in order to begin the cycle anew.
That has to blow your mind.
Slee and MacKeigan don’t miss the opportunity for a bit of environmental advocacy, of course; no nature documentary could exist without it. The message is delivered gently, but is no less grim; monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed, which then becomes the sole diet of the rapidly growing caterpillar. Although once prevalent in fields across the continent, back in the day, industrial farming has wiped out massive stretches of milkweed.
As shown here, this potentially dire situation is being addressed by homeowners who plant “butterfly-friendly” gardens, laden with both colorful flowers — to attract the monarchs — and milkweed, in order to nurture them.
My one complaint with this film is completely regional: It does not cite the massive monarch butterfly preserve that we have here in California, at the Monterey Peninsula’s Pacific Grove, where millions of monarchs winter from mid-October through mid-February. California isn’t even acknowledged in this film’s depictions of the monarch migratory route, although a map included with the press notes shows a smaller route that apparently runs from the California coast to Nevada, Arizona and southern Utah, and then back again.
Not nearly as dramatic as the trip from Toronto to Mexico, to be sure, but I’d have thought we warranted at least a mention.
No matter. “Flight of the Butterflies” is enchanting, absorbing and instructive: everything one could want from a nature documentary.
And De Glanville’s 3D cinematography makes it even neater. You’ll be hard-pressed not to grab at the air in front of your face, hoping to snatch a monarch in mid-flight.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com