Science fiction writers dream up plots about families on multi-generational space voyages, where the great-grandmother never sees the end and the great-granddaughter never knew the beginning. What’s the big deal? Monarch butterflies make such astonishing migrations all the time.
“Flight of the Butterflies,” the new big-screen movie at Discovery Place, contains remarkable footage of these fragile astronauts, which make the northward trek to Canada for summer and return to sheltering mountains in Mexico for winter. (If you plant milkweed in your backyard garden, these wayfarers may lay eggs on it. Monarch caterpillars snack on their own empty egg sacs, then chomp milkweed leaves before entering the chrysalis stage.)
Director Mike Slee (“Meerkat Manor” and “Bugs! A Rainforest Adventure!) tells two stories. One follows a monarch and her descendants on such a journey. The other profiles zoologist Fred Urquhart (Gordon Pinsent), who married Norah (Patricia Phillips) and enlisted her in a four-decade effort to tag and track butterflies. When two young assistants find their Mexican refuge and summon the Urquharts, the film provides a brief emotional buzz.
Maybe Slee did that because audiences don’t anthropomorphize insects, as we like to do with even small mammals. Butterflies are indistinguishable and mysterious to us, however lovely; by introducing a human element, Slee gives us someone to root for. (The Canadian-backed film uses major Canadian players: Pinsent starred in “Away From Her,” opposite Oscar-nominated Julie Christie, and narrator Megan Follows is a TV star there.)
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I didn’t need that subplot, especially in a 45-minute film. I was happy watching an almost inverted monarch extrude an egg on the underside of a green shoot, or marveling at thousands of orange butterflies that clung to Mexican evergreen trees, like leaves that refused to give in to winter’s harassment.
The film offers bits of scientific fact without overwhelming us. I’d have liked to hear more about the threats that are already reducing monarch populations, especially the severe deforestation of their Mexican habitat (mentioned once in passing as “logging”).
But “Flight” isn’t really a scientific exploration of Danaus plexippus. Instead, it’s meant to inspire wonder at one of the globe’s most arduous journeys and the paper-thin creatures that make it year after year. That it does especially well.