Directed by Mike Slee
Written by Wendy Mackeigan and Mike Slee
Starring Gordon Pinsent, Patricia Phllips and Shaun Benson
When you’re a kid, it seems like the world is full of things to discover. Every day brought something new, whether it was some bug’s disgusting yet impressive feat of strength or the news that snakes smell things with their tongues.
It turns out that the world is still just as interesting as it used to be. We adults have just stopped looking.
“Flight of the Butterflies,” playing on the IMAX screen at Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake, is a trip into that wide-eyed world of childhood discovery. The movie makes it clear there are far more to butterflies than just their pretty wings, mixing fascinating close-ups with a touch of violence and all the strange facts your inner eight-year-old could ever want.
The movie follows monarch butterflies on their cross-country migration to a specific area in the mountains of Mexico. It uses some cutesy techniques from early Disney nature movies, such as giving the central animal a name, but it’s the science that elevates “Flight of the Butterflies.” It turns out that butterflies smell with their legs, and cocoons actually emerge from underneath the caterpillar’s skin.
The movie also makes excellent use of extreme close-ups. A caterpillar is shown so closely that you can actually see its little mouth rip off a bite of leaf. A butterfly’s tube-shaped mouth is unrolled right in front of us, and later their wings are shown in such detail we can see each individual scale.
Even more breathtaking however, is the representation of flight. Watching butterflies soar through the air in 3D is a stunning experience all on its own, but it’s made even more powerful by the use of slow motion. As the butterfly takes off, its wings bend and flex just like a bird’s, imbuing the tiny bug with an incredible sense of strength.
Like any nature documentary, there are a few moments of surprising violence. One of the caterpillars falls prey to an ant infestation, and there are several shots of butterflies that had fallen victim to the elements. It’s a part of life, but seeing it can be startling.
There’s also a human subplot, involving Dr. Fred Urquhart’s lifelong quest to find the secret site in Mexico where the monarchs spend the winter. It’s the least interesting part of the movie, missing both the surprise and the subtlety of the butterfly footage. Only at the end does it redeem itself, adding a heartwarming touch to the movie’s resolution.
Even that, however, pales in comparison to our first sight of the butterflies’ sanctuary. There are so many monarchs that they fill the trees, their wings even more plentiful than the leaves. When they all take off at once, your brain is helpless to do anything but sit back and soak in the gloriousness of it.
And when one seems to fly within reach of your fingertips, it’s hard not to try and reach out and touch it. The little kid you once were would have approved.