There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and Morgan Freeman’s voice. Countless documentaries utilize Freeman’s soothing vocal register to instill a sense of dimension and zest to weighty subject matter, and the lovely wildlife documentary Born to Be Wild is no different. Directed by David Lickley and presented in stunning IMAX 3D, the film juxtaposes the lives of two extraordinary women: animal husbandry expert Daphne Sheldrick, who helps raise orphaned elephants in Kenya, and master primatologist Birute Galdikas, a tireless advocate of the orangutan population in Borneo. Sheldrick and Galdikas both abide by a very specific creed: mimic the exact process of animal parenting to carefully prepare these animals for reentry into the wild.
“This story is like a fairy tale, except it’s entirely true,” Freeman omnisciently muses in the opening moments, his effortless voice drifting in the wake of the film’s sweeping helicopter shots over majestic African plains and Indonesian rainforest. Unlike a typical Animal Planet special, Born to Be Wild quickly moves from grandiose imagery to the more intimate methodologies of both women, who are “real-life fairy godmothers” for the animal population they help salvage. Sheldrick has spent the better part of three decades perfecting her detailed process of feeding, housing, and preparing orphaned African elephants for life in the wild. The depth and scale of her work is immediately apparent. “It took me 28 years to develop the right milk formula,” Sheldrick quietly says, staring at her hard work brilliantly rendered by the image of a strong baby elephant gleefully sucking on a giant baby’s bottle. Galdikas’s procedures are equally intricate, transitioning orangutans from human dependence to wild independence with a keen attention to their unique, sometimes human-like personalities. “They need to retain their wildness,” Galdikas confesses, watching her young primate children swinging wildly on a brilliant jungle gym with the admiration of a proud mother.
Personal moments of reflection like these are Born to Be Wild‘s greatest asset, revealing both women’s passion while also suggesting the complexity of the animal’s they are treating. Imagery of the animals in motion obviously makes an impact as well, but these images feel entirely earned instead of merely pandering or cute. Whether it’s a wheelbarrow full of baby orangutans or a baby elephant jumping up on a gate to say hello to the camera, there’s a natural rhythm on display, a tenderness that transcends our cynical modern day impulse to question and critique. A few key sequences even take on a magical quality, like when Sheldrick explains her zookeeper’s actually sleep in the same space as their elephants, just as a mother would in the wild. A quiet two-shot of a nervous baby elephant being calmed down by his human companion is certainly one of the most beautiful images in recent cinematic memory, and a perfect example of how Born to Be Wild transcends its genre.
At a mere 40 minutes, it might be hard to validate a wide theatrical release for Born to Be Wild. But the film organically progresses through an entire rehabilitation cycle for each species, from indoctrination to re-release with such seamless precision it’s a worthwhile investment nonetheless. More impressively, there’s genuine artistry to the way Lickley merges Freeman’s iconic voice with wondrously smooth camera movement. Each key sequence begins with slow-rising (and sometimes descending) crane shots moving from wide-angle landscapes to crisp close-ups of the animals caught in thought or motion, brilliantly transitioning the film from the epic to the personal and vice versa. Aesthetic and thematic connections like these are few and far between in modern mainstream cinema, and should be treasured by a mass audience. Despite Born to Be Wild‘s short duration, there’s a lifetime of human compassion and the complexity of natural selection working in glorious harmony, one step at a time.