2014, G, 80 min. Directed by Judy Irving.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 5, 2014
I think it’s safe to say that documentary filmmaker Judy Irving has a thing for birds, considering that her last feature was 2003’s popular bird pic, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. With Pelican Dreams, Irving again delivers personal observations about curious creatures in a manner that’s part nature doc and part meditative exploration. The result is as mixed as the process.
Pelicans are endlessly fascinating animals to watch due to their commanding wingspans during flight, aerodynamic water dives, and long bills and expandable throat pouches. Irving’s extensive footage of pelican behavior is the highlight of the movie. Also we learn the toll human behavior has taken on the pelican population, how they were not too long ago placed on the endangered species list, but have bounced back to such an extent that their population is now encroaching into human realms, where they are often found on urban streets, shopping malls, and bridges. In fact, it’s a dehydrated, undernourished pelican that lands on the Golden Gate Bridge that prompts Irving to make this film.
In a voiceover that continues throughout the film, Irving says she’s always wanted to make this documentary; her fascination with pelicans predates her Wild Parrots movie. She recalls having flying dreams in her childhood, and while remembering the sensation wonders how pelicans feel when they first learn to fly. This is where she loses me with this new film. Irving errs on the side of anthropomorphism, even as she shows us the army of human rehabilitators needed to keep injured pelicans alive and flying. Irving insists on calling the Golden Gate pelican Gigi, and frames all the other background material around the fate of Gigi and Morro, a pelican that suffers from a broken wing. We ultimately learn a lot about pelicans from this doc – and that’s lovely; we also learn a lot about Judy Irving here, and that’s much less rewarding.