Natalie Portman narrates Disney+’s tale of underwater mother-and-child bonding against a stunningly complex backdrop.
Dolphin Reef is one of two Disneynature documentaries to drop on Disney+ today, the other being Elephant, an ever so slightly lesser production that felt like the proper do-over of Apple TV+’s The Elephant Queen with the added bonus of narration being handled by a literal princess. This film is also narrated by a princess of sorts, Natalie Portman, and she does occasionally add unnecessary but on-brand family-friendly flourishes to what we’re seeing on-screen. But in its totality, Dolphin Reef seems content to allow the unknowable ocean depths to speak for themselves as an ageless source of endless wonder, and that’s a better, more naturalistic fit for a nature documentary, even a Disney one.
Naturally the adventures of wayward three-year-old bottlenose dolphin Echo – a fitting name for anyone who played that Mega Drive game – have some anthropomorphic charm, and the built-in emotional pull of the nipper’s relationship with his mother, Kumu. But it doesn’t take long for these famously intelligent and graceful creatures to allow the film’s focus to become the idyllic Polynesian islands around which the feature is filmed.
Undersea settings are unique and arresting for several reasons, chief among them that so little of what goes on under the waves is properly known or understood. The denizens of the sea can look like something out of Finding Nemo or something out of H. R. Giger’s imagination; explorations of the deep are just as much documentaries as pulp horror flicks. Dolphin Reef leans into the inexplicable interconnectedness of an underwater ecosystem that feels distinctly, unknowably alien. After a while, the dolphins seem beside the point.
The filmmakers here lean into the precarious balance between coral, flora, herbivorous sea life that keeps the landscaping in check, and the deadly predators who hungrily lance through the water above them. This is sometimes left to sit in otherworldly splendor but is occasionally portrayed as literal battles between links on the food chain, with species squaring off in fights that fittingly seem sprung from Disney’s trademark imagination.
Portman is on-hand all the while, sometimes to give the scraps a sillier, more palatable accompanying narration, and often to dispense important facts about the delicate ecosystem and its most vital components. The narrative of Dolphin Reef, such as there is one, mostly plays out against this backdrop as a simplistic but engaging tale of mother-and-child adventure, of Echo growing up and becoming self-sufficient in a hostile but beautiful environment. This film manages to find emotional power in the uncanny way its subjects fit into a tapestry of life so utterly divorced from our own, but so similar to it in all the essential ways – the bond between parents and their children, the sometimes reluctant pursuit of independence, and the importance of brushing one’s teeth.
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