With their bulging eyes and bouncy spunk, it’s a mystery that lemurs haven’t become today’s most unbearably ubiquitous meme. Island of Lemurs: Madagascar appears to want to correct that, shoving the high-leaping primates in our faces—literally, in protruding 3D IMAX—while explaining their unique ecological origins and troubled environmental future. Having miraculously survived the asteroid that eradicated the dinosaurs, lemurs found their way, via a small floating piece of land, through the Indian Ocean and to Madagascar—their only inhabited location. They have no natural predators on the island nation, and have developed into a diverse species. Thankfully, they aren’t unworthy of such quasi-fetishized fascination (aesthetically, they suggest charming gene splices of house cats and monkeys), but the film lacks the structure and concentration to lucidly communicate their history and the threats to their existence.
Narrated with bemused candor by, who else, Morgan Freeman, the corny script strains to add eco-tourist weight to footage of dancing and pouncing lemurs (the ring-tailed variety are said to “live on the outskirts and launch raids on farms below,” which cues the Ennio Morricone-esque music, pushing a slight agenda of anthropomorphism). But despite the gloriously captured natural panoramas and exhaustive footage of its eccentric primates, the film is more interested in a muddled humanist story that glorifies the aid offered by Dr. Patricia Wright—a scientist and professor from Long Island, New York—to maintain the survival of the species. While Island of Lemurs acknowledges the threat to the animals, it only meekishly delves into the harm caused by such pernicious forces as humans burning down habitats in order to make room for profitable grazing and farming fields, leading more to inchoate information than a studied call to action.
Even though the doc briefly and righteously condemns the land-burning humans, it overcompensates for its lack of insight into human destruction of the lemurs’ habitat by overpraising the biologists and scientists who devote their time to the animals—consequently losing sight of the cheery species altogether. What results is a lopsided, put-upon narrative of survival (with a call-out to its expected young audience: “They’ll need more than luck…they’ll need help”) where the humans, and not the animals themselves, are the ones celebrated. And as a tribal musical cover of “I Will Survive” plays over the end credits, Island of Lemurs ultimately sends a murky message that nature needs human nurture.