Movie review: ‘The Whale’

The title of the documentary “The Whale” might at first glance seem generic or uninspired, but it’s really a nod of awed respect to an extraordinary individual: the orphaned orca that captivated the residents of Vancouver Island for five years beginning in 2001.

Thoughtful and moving, if often heavy-handed, “The Whale” follows the remarkable story of Luna and will appeal to animal lovers of all ages, although it doesn’t sugarcoat some difficult events. Expanding on their 2008 documentary “Saving Luna,” British Columbia-based directors Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit have added footage and receive a profile-heightening boost from executive producers Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson.

Luna, a.k.a. L98, was part of a closely studied population of killer whales, as orcas are also (unfairly?) known, and was not yet 2 years old when he showed up in a fiord, mysteriously separated from his family. He quickly adapted to what were unusual circumstances for an extremely social marine mammal; orcas travel in pods their whole lives. Keeping himself well fed on his own, Luna sought quality time from humans (and canines) in boats and on docks, approaching them with an insistent playfulness.

On the evidence of the filmmakers’ up-close footage, Luna is a smart kid and a natural-born clown; it’s no wonder locals and tourists fall for him and people from around the world become involved in the controversy that eventually surrounds him.


Call it a collision of good intentions: Canadian regulators’ tough-love edicts on one side, on the other the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations government’s belief that Luna is the reincarnated spirit of a recently deceased elder, and scientists taking stances all along the spectrum. (One naturalist marvels at the animal’s “contemplative” gaze.)

An engaging contribution to our evolving understanding of other species’ emotional lives, “The Whale” doesn’t pretend to have answers to complex questions. But the filmmakers don’t entirely trust their material. However heartfelt the talking-head testimony, it grows repetitive. Worse, the extensive narration — some delivered by Reynolds, some by Parfit — slathers on the declarations of wonder.

No need. The power of Luna’s story is as apparent as the beauty of Vancouver Island’s mist-wrapped coastline.