Film Review: Flight of the Butterflies in 3D

The team behind <i>Bugs! 3D</i> focuses on the epic journey of monarch butterflies and the patient naturalists who for decades devoted their lives to the familiar yet little-understood insects.

Butterflies in 3D? Almost as good as T-Rex roaring from a giant screen, which was, of course, producer Jonathan Barker’s first big idea for IMAX theatres. Watching a rabble of butterflies virtually fill a six-story auditorium should be entertainment enough for adolescents not yet ruined by videogames, but Flight of the Butterflies in 3D has the added value of a good story. Naturalist Fred Urquhart and his wife, Norah, devoted their lives to tracking the beautiful flyers on their annual circuit through three or four generations—from Texas in the spring to Canada in the fall and back again to Mexico—a 40-year effort to discover the elusive insects’ winter roost high in the Sierra Madre mountains.

Writer and director Mike Slee (a protégé of David Attenborough who also helmed Bugs! 3D) dramatizes the Urquharts (Gordon Pinsent and Patricia Phillips) at work and play in sepia-like vignettes that intersperse the scientific bits, so we see the lepidopterists in the field trundling about with butterfly nets, and in their rustic cabin plotting a map with sightings by the “citizen scientists” who diligently tagged butterflies to verify their life cycles and migration routes. The recreations are hokey but wholesome, even endearing, considering the target audience: SK Films boasts that test screenings received rave reviews across all ages, but the film appears to be aimed at kids eight to twelve. At one point, we find two notable citizen scientists, Ken Brugger and his wife, Catalina (Shaun Benson and Stephanie Sigman), pausing in their quest to observe a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico, a bit of local color that conveniently underscores the transnational scope of the enterprise, which has metamorphosed into But the film’s entomology is equally child-centric, with the monarchs, which cycle from egg to caterpillar to pupa to butterfly several times during their annual circuit, referred to as grandmothers, mothers and daughters, according to their generation.

The macro (extreme close-up) photography is striking: Butterflies appear rather monstrous when seen flitting about in slo-mo stereography. In one sequence, MRI and CT scans depict the time-lapse transformation of a caterpillar inside a chrysalis, detailing the development of the butterfly’s proboscis, its wings and flight muscles, its compound eyes…more amazing than watching Jeff Goldblum turn into a fly. Slee and co-writer Wendy MacKeigan spend a good deal of the film explaining the importance of habitats, including practical advice about creating butterfly-friendly gardens in the suburbs, but they don’t get scary about the endangered planet. Flight of the Butterflies in 3D is instructive and celebratory, not didactic and scolding, a refreshing pause from the Chicken Little approach to nature documentaries. In fact, this short, easy-to-like and informative movie is refreshingly upbeat, as bright as its subject, and at just under 45 minutes, a perfect entertainment for restless youngsters.