‘Pelican Dreams’ strikes gold with big birds
As documentarian Judy Irving did with “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” her 2003 sleeper hit that remains among the 50 highest-grossing theatrical documentaries of all time, she has again found storytelling gold in a quirky avian-news item.
Inspired by 2008 news reports of a weak and sickly pelican found wandering, disoriented, amid traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, the filmmaker’s “Pelican Dreams” follows Gigi (as Irving names the bird) into the Bay Area nature-rehabilitation facility where she has been bundled, under a blanket, in the back seat of a police car.
It is a slender-but-charming film, moving and educational in equal measure as Irving digresses from Gigi’s tale to look into the larger story of pelicans, whose survival has been threatened by climate change, oil spills, pesticides and competition for food with human fishermen. Along the way, the filmmaker, who also acts as narrator, introduces us to a second pelican, Morro, who is simultaneously recuperating from a wing injury in the back yard of a couple who looks after several other wounded birds.
We are made to care, not just about these two funny-looking feathered creatures — whose personalities are likened, aptly, to those of dogs, by Gigi’s chief caretaker, Monte Merrick — but about the species in general. It’s a nature film with a very personal entry point. Two, really. The fate of these birds, who, the film tells us, could live into their 40s, becomes as engrossing as many a human drama.
Irving is a good storyteller, shaping the narrative around handsome National Geographic-style cinematography, as well as more-mundane footage of the day-to-day business of wildlife rehabilitation.
Her narration, at times, involves a bit of hyperbole. Irving tells us, near the beginning of the film, that she knows what flying feels like because she regularly dreams about it. Later, she quotes an avian veterinarian who has assured her — on what evidence, it is not clear — that pelicans also dream.
Both of these statements may be true, but they aren’t the ones that matter. Those truths have to do with how our actions affect the other beings with whom we share this planet.
Michael O’Sullivan is a staff writer for The Washington Post.