Review: ‘Dolphin Reef,’ narrated by Natalie Portman

April 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Dolphin Reef” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

“Dolphin Reef” 

Directed by Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill

Culture Representation: This Disneynature documentary chronicles some of the coral-reef life in French Polynesia, Hawaii and Florida, with an emphasis on dolphins and humpback whales.

Culture Clash: The dolphins and humpback whales are in danger of being killed by orcas.

Culture Audience: “Dolphin Reef” will appeal primarily to people who like movies about ocean animals.

A scene from “Dolphin Reef” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

Disneynature’s “Dolphin Reef” is a beautifully filmed and unevenly edited documentary about coral-reef life in oceans. Viewers should know in advance that the movie isn’t just about dolphins. Humpback whales get almost as much as screen time in the movie as the dolphins, but since dolphins are “cuter,” that might be why dolphins are made the selling point in the movie’s title. The documentary is a pretty good lesson on the ocean’s ecosystem, but it also serves as a warning that much of the ecosystem is in danger of becoming extinct by the end of the 21stcentury if environmental protections aren’t implemented.

Narrated by Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman, “Dolphin Reef” focuses on a bottlenose dolphin mother and child, as well as a humpback whale mother and child. (They’re the only animals in the movie that have names.) Kumu is the dolphin mother of 3-year-old son Echo, a mischievous, playful child with a short attention span. Echo has reached a point in his life when he has to learn to be independent from his mother, but he lets other things easily distract him. Echo becomes fascinated with Moraya, a 40-foot humpback whale and her newborn female calf Fluke. The dolphins and the whales sometimes cross paths with each other, as they mingle with other ocean life and try to dodge the deadly jaws of orcas.

Without question, the best thing about “Dolphin Reef” is the gorgeous, immersive cinematography, which is usually the case with Disneynature documentaries. (And the atmosphere of “Dolphin Reef” might look kind of like a real-life version of the Pixar animation classic “Finding Nemo,” but without animals talking like humans, of course.) The vibrancy of the colors and animal life in the documentary’s coral reefs will give viewers the feeling of experiencing the beauty and dangers of the ocean firsthand.

However, unlike Disneynature films, which tends to focus on only one kind of animal, the story in “Dolphin Reef” isn’t as focused and could have benefited from tighter editing. Soon after viewers are introduced to dolphins Kumu and Echo, it veers into an educational narrative about other ocean life. The corals are the foundation, and they are kept from overgrowing by the ocean’s “gardeners”—the animals that feed on the corals. The gardeners are food for meat-eating ocean “predators” (such as dolphins, humpback whales and sharks), who are in turn eaten by “superpredators,” such as orcas.

The movie explains that Moraya the humpback whale has arrived from a cold polar location to give birth in warmer, tropical climate of the Pacific Ocean. A good deal of the documentary then shows how her whale calls attract the attention of male humpback whales, who sing and dance and then compete to become her protector. One only whale can emerge victorious.

There’s also a lot of screen time given to some of the memorable ocean residents who come in contact with the dolphins and whales. Razorfish are popular dining options for dolphins, which look for food by using a highly sophisticated sonar called echo location. It’s a skill that takes dolphins years to develop. Even though razorfish can hide in the sand, they can be detected if a dolphin has a highly attuned echo location.

Other fish who get a spotlight in the movie are humphead parrotfish, which are described as “the single most important protectors of the reef,” since they are essentially the “garbage collectors” of the ocean. In turn, the humphead parrotfish, whose enormous teeth can start to rot if not cleaned enough, are groomed smaller fish and other animals, in a ritual that goes back eons. If you ever wanted to know that humphead parrotfish excrement looks like sand, and they excrete about five tons a year, then you have this documentary to thank.

Cuttlefish are cast as the mysterious “villains” to smaller creatures, since cuttlefish have the ability to disguise themselves by changing the appearance of its scales. Cuttlefish can also transfix its prey by making its scales glow in the dark. It sounds like the kind of villain that you’d see in a Disney cartoon movie.

Also part of this ocean community are peacock mantis shrimp (notable for their obsessive grooming), crabs and sting rays. The editing of “Dolphin Reef” is clearly inspired by “Finding Nemo,” since these different ocean animals are sometimes made to look like they have cartoonish personalities, such as when the camera focuses on a wide-eyed fish that looks around and ducks when predators get into a fight. That footage might not actually be of the fish reacting to the fight, but it’s edited to look that way.

There’s even a “Finding Nemo” moment in the movie when Echo gets separated from his mother, is stuck with a friendly turtle in a very deep crevice. There’s a race against time for the Echo and the turtle to try to find an opening in the crevice, so they can rise to the ocean surface to breathe in much-needed oxygen. Moraya and her daughter Fluke also have a scary moment when they’re surrounded by orcas. Viewers can watch the the movie to find out what happened in both situations.

“Dolphin Reef” (directed by Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill) gives the impression that it was filmed mainly in the Pacific Ocean (including French Polynesian islands and in Hawaii), but Disneynature’s behind-the-scenes documentary “Diving With Dolphins” shows that filming of the movie spread all the way to the Atlantic Ocean coast of Florida. Therefore, there’s a lot of editing that looks manipulated to appear that things are happening in the same general location, when in fact they are not.

Portman’s narration is much like a the conversational tone of an elementary school teacher when she has to say lines describing the Polynesian islands’ as providing a “backdrop of an amazing story, with characters as fantastical as a fairy tale, but as real as you and me.” And she has a dramatically ominous tone when she says of the ocean: “This world operates under a different set of rules.”

Because the movie spreads the storyline across two types of ocean mammals—dolphins and humpback whales—as well as various “supporting characters” of ocean life, a more accurate title for the movie would be “Coral Reef,” even though it’s not as eye-catching as “Dolphin Reef.” Although dolphins and humpback whales are very different in many ways, they both have striking similarities, since they are each very intelligent, group-oriented animals that have distinctive languages and show affection through touching.

“Dolphin Reef” is not the best Disneynature documentary, but it can be enjoyed by people looking for a family-friendly film that gives some eye-popping views of ocean life.

Disney+ premiered “Dolphin Reef” on April 3, 2020.