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Friday, 25 January 2013 12:00

'Flight of the Butterflies' presents monarchs on big screen

'Flight of the Butterflies' presents monarchs on big screen flightofthebutterflies.com
Written by Martha K. Baker
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Here's a crazy idea: Film some of the world's smallest, most delicate creatures, Monarch butterflies, in one of the world's largest film formats. Then spread those tiny creatures across a giant dome of a screen and hope it works to drop a caterpillar on heads of movie-goers.

Well, that is a crazy idea and, no, it doesn't work for "Flight of the Butterflies" (that's right -- no initial article just as in the title of "March of the Penguins"). "Flight of the Butterflies" plays at the St. Louis Science Center's Omnimax Theater. What does work better in this nature film is pairing the story of monarch butterflies with the story of the scientists who studied and researched the monarchs' flight for more than 40 years.

The film, a co-production among Mexico, Canada and the United Kingdom, follows the journey of the monarchs to the sanctuaries of Mexico. The monarch weighs less than a penny but flies 14,000 miles to a foreign land to winter over. They fly over the skyscrapers of Canada and the Great Lakes between two continents; they fly over Texas and enter Mexico to glom on to tree trunks and limbs, spatter on wet windshields, and make an appearance in cemeteries in time for the Day of the Dead, where they symbolize the souls of innocent children.

We know much of this because of the unstinting efforts of the butterfly buffs, the Urquharts, Fred and Norah. "Flight of the Butterflies" starts with Fred Urquhart's boyhood and follows him as he marries Norah, who joins him on his search for where the butterflies go in the winter. They enlist scores of volunteers to tag and track the monarchs, eventually overlapping the sticky tags grocers put on food products to mark the wings.

Through the agency of another couple in Mexico, the Urquharts are finally able to see for themselves, in their old age, where the butterflies congregate and, further, to ascertain, through a tag from an elementary school, that the butterflies in Mexico are the same ones who came from Canada. It's a thrilling moment, recreated sentimentally with the actors Gordon Pinsent and Patricia Phillips as the elder Urquharts in this film.

Mike Slee co-wrote the script with one of the producers, Wendy MacKeigan, who also produced "Journey to Mecca." Slee also directed, but someone needed to insist that a regular documentary would have proved more effective than IMAX film for this story. While the scenes of a myriad butterflies flying overhead are lovely, other scenes of butterflies and caterpillars and chrysalises as big as those moo cows made out of butter at a state fair are nerve-wracking and unlovely and unreal.

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