Opens Fri., Nov. 28 at Sundance Cinemas. Rated G. 80 minutes.
Bay Area director Judy Irving scored a surprise long-running hit with her endearing 2003 documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, which was equally about feral birds and their human defenders (both endangered, really, in pre-recession San Francisco). This is more of a personal film with a smaller flock. Irving describes her childhood identification with the gawky pelican, so clumsy on shore but so graceful in flight. Yet, she confesses, she knew almost nothing about the California brown pelican until seeing a sick, starving fledgling “arrested” for blocking traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge. (A kindly maintenance guy actually collected it in a blanket; cops took it to a bird-rescue facility.)
Irving follows that bird, which she dubs Gigi, and a few other stories of pelicans-on-the-mend. It’s no surprise that she finds a small community of avid pelican-philes (one even tattooed with the bird); as with Wild Parrots, she’s intent on the bond between a charismatic species and us earthbound admirers. Not an ornithologist, Irving does tend toward airy sentiment and anthropomorphism (“What does it feel like to fly?”). Still, she clearly loves the birds and their devoted protectors, who patiently explain that pelicans can’t be tamed or treated as pets. Yet like crows and pigeons, they’re becoming accustomed both to us and our urban environment. In addition to plunging gracefully into the sea for abalone, they’re not above dumpster-diving for scraps (just like eagles in Alaska, and just as risky).
By way of context, the doc does touch upon the disastrous Deepwater Horizon spill and the DDT crisis of the late ’60s that made the California brown pelican an endangered species for decades. (The resurgent birds are now confronted with climate change, depleted fisheries, and fishhooks.) Serious bird-watchers won’t learn anything new here, though newbies may perhaps be stirred to visit East Sand Island on the Columbia River—a regular migration stop between Baja and Vancouver Island.
The best footage here is taken in super-slo-mo HD at the water’s surface and just below, as we see these feathered missiles strike and envelop their prey with their famously wattled jowls. (Why do I always think of vacuum-cleaner bags and accordions?) The most harrowing is filmed in a breeding colony on the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, where sibling rivalry becomes murder. (Again, these animals aren’t pets.) On a more cheerful note, Wild Parrots hero Mark Bittner even shows up here. Irving apparently married the guy—a happy ending to this film that, while unspoken, dovetails with her last.