We first meet Gigi the pelican on the very structure she was ultimately named after. The sight of this confused bird blocking traffic and eluding police officers on the Golden Gate Bridge may be adorable, but her plight is anything but: Lost, hungry, and dehydrated, hers is a story more and more common as the habitat and food supply for these birds continue to dwindle. Among the more indelible images in this no-frills documentary are long shots of pelicans forced to cohabitate with other birds in smaller and smaller spaces, fighting over food and, in some cases, even eating the fledglings of other species. Despite the direness of this scenario, Pelican Dreams skews toward uplift, focusing as it does on the efforts of a few to help save as many of these animals as possible, caring for their injuries and countering the effects of malnutrition before returning them to the wild.
Director and narrator Judy Irving describes these awkward yet graceful creatures as dinosaur-like, bringing to mind the closing shot of Jurassic Park. Irving’s film never explicitly invokes Jeff Goldblum’s “life finds a way” philosophizing from Spielberg’s blockbuster, but it powerfully illustrates it. It’s in the lengths to which Dani and Bill Nicholson care for dozens of birds, among them a pelican named Morro after it becomes clear he will never regain his ability to fly. And it’s in the adaptability of the animals themselves, such as a usually solitary pelican who becomes unlikely friends with a duck that’s also being nursed back to health, or the way their eyes and bills change color with the seasons. Irving’s film is spare, empathic, and deeply introspective, and its imagery, such as a pelican fascinated by its own reflection, is so sublime in its kookiness as to be worthy of Werner Herzog.