When considering the best voiceover artists in cinema history, Ryan Reynolds doesn’t immediately come to mind as an especially dynamic one. Known for playing sarcastic charmers and action heroes, Reynolds lacks the soothing tenor of Morgan Freeman or Orson Welles’s robust flair for drama. But those traits aren’t necessary for director Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit’s The Whale, a lovely but problematic documentary on the 2003 appearance of a lone killer whale in Nootka Sound near Vancouver Island. This modern-day fairy tale demands a lighter touch, both a child-like innocence and whimsy that contextualizes the story as a very Canadian experience. Reynolds succeeds on both fronts, narrating The Whale with the right combination of playfulness and tenderness as if he were telling a great bedtime story to his own curious youngster.
It all begins simply enough, with stunning layers of mist lingering over long shots of the Canadian wilderness. A burst from a whale’s blowhole shoots water into the air, and two-year-old orca Luna comes into view. The whale suddenly appears one July morning, then proceeds to lovingly interact with the surrounding vessels and kayakers as if yearning for some form of shared friendship. This natural phenomenon sends the Canadian residents of the majestic forest region into a tizzy, and The Whale weaves interviews of local folk with countless home-video footage of Luna at play mere feet from human onlookers. After visiting Luna on the water one day, hotel owner Cameron Forbes remembers seeing so much intelligence in the whale’s eyes, confessing “there’s more there than most of my guests.” His respect for the whale is indicative of nearly every other interviewee.
Interestingly, the town’s initial amazement and admiration never wears off, despite the fact that Luna swims through their waters for nearly four years. The Department of Fisheries ultimately attempts to deal with the growing attention by limiting the public’s contact with Luna, and inevitable government intervention follows. This leads the local Mouachaht/Muchalaht First Nation tribe, who believes Luna to be a reincarnation of their recently deceased chief, to take action and protest. During one riveting scene in which the Fisheries Department attempts to lure Luna into a massive net, some of the tribe elder’s row their canoes onto the water and lead the whale away, drawing him toward the horizon with an ancient song.
At this point, The Whale takes on a near-mystical quality, and Luna’s consistent interaction with boats and ships starts to represent a form of transcendent communication between species the filmmakers believe should be celebrated, not disavowed. Fisheries Department head Ed Thorburn tries to maneuver the overly complex channels of bureaucracy to achieve a positive outcome for all parties involved, but his decisions often make the situation more convoluted, more constricting. A state sponsored Stewardship program, where the Fisheries Department sends out boats to police the waters of Nootka Sound and separate Luna from the human interaction he loves, is especially unsuccessful.
Through it’s almost devout dedication to Luna and her exploits on the water, The Whale frames the entire situation as an important scientific event, a rare moment where the barriers between human and animal interaction come crumbling down. While much of this idea is beautifully rendered, there’s a troubling sense of certainty permeating throughout the dramatic climax, something almost preachy in nature. The film’s husband/wife directing team can’t help but get politically involved in Luna’s developing situation, and much of that closeness creates an air of self-importance in the cinematic aesthetics. Interviews are bisected by corny split-screen graphics, and the constant use of soft instrumentals to illuminate plot shifts gets especially tiresome. From here, The Whale stops being a documentary and starts to look like a sermon.
Despite this troubling shift, The Whale examines a necessary perspective ripe for discussion. Should science and governmental institutions define the essence of communication between wild animals and humans? If so, what organic elements of the experience will we miss in the process? The Whale doesn’t really offer convincing answers to these questions, but it does potently address the interconnectedness between seemingly divergent species in fascinating ways. It is possible that man and beast see the world in similar ways, and for these reasons, The Whale is that rare animal documentary entirely concerned with human nature.