Playful primates grab the spotlight in 'Island of Lemurs' documentary

“Other than making the actual word [Madagascar] famous, I’m not sure those films reveal very much about this mysterious place. So, there has been a great deal for us to do and it’s been a lot of fun to do it.”
By Karen Butler  |  April 6, 2014 at 12:23 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 6 (UPI) -- Director David Douglas says he hopes people take their children to see his new live-action, IMAX 3D film “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” so they can enjoy the thrill of learning about these extraordinary animals together.

“I think it’s a great family experience on many levels,” Douglas emphasized in a recent phone interview.

“The one that’s most obvious to me is that the family that goes to this movie… everybody is going to learn something about lemurs at the same time because, basically, nobody knows anything [about them,]” he explained. “So, it’s going to be an experience that the family shares, rather than a situation where the parents are revealing something to the kids. They are all going to learn about them together at the same time and I think that will be a nice thing for families.”

Douglas said he and writer-producer Drew Fellman decided to focus on lemurs after the success of "Born to Be Wild 3D," their 2011 documentary about orangutans and elephants. The team asked famed primatologist, Dr. Patricia Wright, to serve as scientific adviser on “Lemurs,” then tapped their “Born to Be Wild” narrator Morgan Freeman to help them tell another remarkable wildlife story; this one about animals Douglas described as “amazing, complex creatures” and the efforts to preserve their natural habitat on Madagascar, an island country located in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Southeast Africa.

“Once we had the experience of working with [Freeman] on ‘Born to Be Wild,’ his voice was kind of in our heads and it was hard to really imagine anybody else doing it, so I’m really glad he did it,” Douglas laughed. “I think [wildlife conservation] is a genuine passion of his. He is just a pleasure to work with. He just makes it so easy.”

Despite the popularity of the animated “Madagascar” movies, most people don’t know a lot about lemurs or where they come from, Douglas noted.

“The word ‘Madagascar,’ for most people in the western world under the age of 16, is completely connected to the DreamWorks Animation films,” the director said. “Other than making the actual word famous, I’m not sure those films reveal very much about this mysterious place. So, there has been a great deal for us to do and it’s been a lot of fun to do it.”

So, what is it about lemurs that makes them so special they deserve their own documentary?

“They are actually a kind of distant relative of ours,” Douglas said. “They are a life form of the primate family -- as we are -- but they are the very earliest model and so the lemurs we see today have the basic equipment we have, in terms of internal organs and opposable thumbs and hands and stereo vision. A variety of things, which we think makes us uniquely human, are also present there in lemurs, and so are also some of the basic social behaviors, which we find interesting to observe in each other. We can also find them in lemurs.”

Douglas admitted the “application of patience” was essential in trying to capture these clever creatures on film.

“There’s nothing random about what they do and having a scientist the scale of Pat Wright to help interpret their behavior really gives you a leg up to being in the right place at the right time when you are trying to make this film,” the director said.

Asked if she is pleased to finally see the documentary released after all she has invested in the project, Wright confessed, “It’s really fun.

“I love the film and just being able to share the film with everybody and the lemurs with everybody. I feel really selfish because I study lemurs and I’ve gotten to spend the last 28 years with lemurs, but to actually share it with the world is really nice,” Wright said, adding she believes the documentary will be embraced by educators as a great teaching tool.

“I think there is nothing that can be better than an extraordinary film that is factual; that really shows the personalities of the animals. I’m certainly going to use it in my classes. But I think worldwide, when you have people from all over the world, seeing these beautiful animals they had no idea existed, and I’m hoping when they see how rare they are -- 90 percent of these lemur species are endangered -- I think when they find out how rare they are, they will really care and help out because it’s a challenge for all of us to make sure these animals exist into the future,” she said. “I think this film is going to do more for education about lemurs and about Madagascar than anything ever has before and I’m hoping the ecotourism will increase because how wonderful if people who see those lemurs and love those lemurs [in the film] could go see them in the wild.”

“Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” is in theaters now.

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