Filmmaker Judy Irving loves our feathered friends, as was evidenced by her excellent 2003 documentary “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” about a flock of invasive birds who over decades have become a San Francisco tourist attraction.
Since childhood she has had a particular affection for pelicans, which she calls “flying dinosaurs.”
Her documentary “Pelican Dreams” starts with cell-phone footage of an injured/lost pelican that has stopped traffic on the bustling Golden Gate Bridge. The animal is captured by a taxi driver who throws a blanket over it and drives it to an avian recovery facility. Irving followed and was inspired enough by what she saw to devote an entire film to the California brown pelican.
It’s a somewhat ramshackle affair, a bit of loose, personal filmmaking that reminds me a bit of the gee-wiz enthusiasm of Bruce Brown’s surfing docs (“Endless Summer”).
Irving takes us to the Channel Islands 40 miles off the coast, where brown pelicans breed and nest. She’s captured some wonderful footage — while mating the birds’ throat sacs turn bright red and their eyes, usually brown, somehow become a haunting blue. She gets footage of the baby pelicans, who have an extremely high morality rate. She captures their first flights, and the coaching by older birds that shows them how to dive bomb into the surf in search of fish.
She spends time with a couple who provide shelter for pelicans recovering from injuries, and becomes particularly involved in the plight of a bird named Morro who apparently will never regain his ability to fly and now needs a full-time human sponsor.
And Irving draws the connection between the near extinction of brown pelicans in the 1970s — thanks to a California chemical plant that was dumping DDT into the ocean — current threats to the birds (particularly climate warming) and the fate of humans on the planet.
This is all orchestrated to a George Winston-ish musical score.
It’s all quite pleasant and fairly unremarkable. Better than your average Animal Planet entry (thanks to the personal touch provided by Irving’s narration) but at best a modest theatrical effort.