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Sweet documentary depicts animal rescue missions


Warner Bros. presents a documentary by David Lickley. Written by Drew Fellman. Narrated by Morgan Freeman. Running time: 40 minutes. Rated G. Opening today at local IMAX theaters.

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

One way or another, you’ll find yourself saying, “Awwwwww.” The adorable baby animals and the grace and kindness of the people who care for them, as depicted in the documentary “Born to Be Wild 3D,” are guaranteed to warm every heart in the theater.

In Borneo, Dr. Birute Mary Galdikas rescues orangutans orphaned by developers who cut down jungle trees to produce palm oil. In Kenya, Dame Daphne M. Sheldrick provides a home for the baby elephants orphaned by poachers. More than 5,000 miles apart, the two women care for different animals but share the same goal: to raise the babies without taming them, so they can return to a natural life in the wild.

Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman narrates the story, taking us back and forth as we see the newest babies arrive and the adolescents “graduate.” The goal is to nurture them only as long as they need help and then find them a safe home in a nature preserve. They are “under human care but not human control; they need to retain their wildness.”

Some of the animals arrive traumatized. A baby elephant who saw humans kill his mother has to learn these humans are different; they just want to feed and protect him. Amazingly, the other orphaned elephants gather around to reassure him that he is safe. They show him that a giant-size bottle can be a good way to get milk. Unlike mother elephants, humans are not big enough to cast protective shadows to prevent sunburn, so Dame Daphne and her colleagues rub sunblock on the tender ears of the baby elephants instead. Elephants do not sleep well alone, so the keepers curl up near them at night. These are the cutest pachyderms onscreen since the baby elephants marched to the Henry Mancini soundtrack in “Hatari.”

Elephants are social creatures. In one very touching scene, when the now “ex-orphans” are brought to a halfway house to get used to living away from the humans, the current residents somehow sense newcomers are arriving and come to a drop-off point to welcome them.

The orangutans interact more directly with their human caregivers, draping themselves along their backs and hugging their chests. Dr. Galdikas and her crew have built a contraption for swinging and climbing to teach them the skills they need to find food and a safe place to sleep: a literal jungle gym. She teaches them more than skills for survival; she makes each one of them feel special and cared for. “As long as they feel loved,” she says, “they’ll have the confidence they need.”

The movie is empathetic but respectful to the animals. It enlarges our circle of compassion by reacquainting us with our fellow residents of the planet. Yet it avoids getting cutesy or overly anthropomorphic. These are not pets, and they are not being tamed. They are temporary guests, learning what they need to know so they can go home.

In the early scenes, we see the orangutans covered with shampoo and sharing a plate of pasta with Dr. Galdikas to the tune of bouncy American roots music such as Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya.” Then as they return to the wild, the soundtrack turns African, more serious and stirring, and we share the mixed feelings of these dedicated people who have cared for the animals for so long. We are happy they are going home but know they will be missed. We are hopeful for their future but worried that the wilderness left for them is shrinking every day.

“Born to Be Wild” is everything a family movie should be: touching, funny and inspiring. With a brisk 40-minute running time, it doesn’t require anyone to sit still for too long. The IMAX 3D format may be overwhelming for children under 5, but anyone older will find the baby animals hard to resist, the scenery breathtaking, and the devotion of Dr. Galdikas and Dame Daphne deeply moving.

Free-lance contributor Nell Minow is the film critic for the website

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