Documentary Review: DisneyNature dives deep for the soaring “Dolphin Reef”

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A couple of things make the lovely and entertaining “Dolphin Reef” stand out among the deep-sea documentaries DisneyNature has served up on previous Earth Days.

We see dolphins engaged in an underwater brawl, something Disney, BBC and other docs on dolphins have missed.

And we witness that rarest of underwater tussles, two green sea turtles feuding over a spot on an underwater outcropping where they need to wait their turn to have their shells and unreachable bits “cleaned” by helpful turtle-waxing fish.

Add to that Oscar winner Natalie Portman‘s enthusiastic narration, and you’ve got the kid-friendliest of the salt water films DisneyNature has served up, anthropomorphized and light — with just enough peril to keep it “real.”

Director Keith Scholey’s team did a “Diving With Dolphins” film concurrently with this one, and served up “Blue” a few years back.

This one takes us to a gorgeous, still-unruined reef in Polynesia to tell the story of Echo, a three year-old still learning dolphin-lore, and his mother, Kuma, who tries to teach him to herd fish via mud circles (stirring up a corral of muddy water on the bottom), or echo-locate tiny, “tasty” razor fish, who burrow into the bottom sand to hide.

Echo is a bit of a slow-learner, giving up on the razorfish to go gulp a little air. In a flash, the prey comes out, en masse, as if to taunt him.

“When no one’s around,” Portman narrates, “it’s a PARTY down there!”

We meet a peacock mantis shrimp, humpback whales trying to avoid the predations of orcas, clown fish and rock-chewing parrotfish, whose “sand poop” has a lot to do why some places have sandier beaches than others.

I did not know that.

And then there’s the mesmerizing, bio-luminescent cuttlefish, the most feared predator among the crabs, shrimp and smaller fish on the reef.

“You don’t MESS with cuttlefish!”

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The over-arching theme of David Fowler’s script is the “balance” of the reef community that keeps it healthy — fish and turtles that prune it, reef sharks that keep the pruners at bay, tiger sharks that dine on reef sharks, at times, and so on.

Humanity’s impact on that balance — pollution, rising sea temperatures, over-fishing and reef-destroying dynamite fishing in that part of the world — is never so much as brought up. There’s a giant bleaching event going on along the Great Barrier Reef as I type this.

“Dolphin Reef” is content to demonstrate how reefs work, and how they should be allowed to work.

Even without those harsh realities, “Dolphin Reef” is DisneyNature’s best undersea doc ever, and a great reason to sign up for Disney+ all by itself. Leave it on as the credits roll to see how the team got these amazing images and you’ll be even more impressed.

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MPAA Rating: G

Cast: Narrated by Natalie Portman

Credits: Directed by Keith Scholey, script by David Fowler. A DisneyNature release on Disney+.

Running time: 1:17

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