Pelican Dreams: The Cornell Lab Movie Review

By Hugh Powell
November 5, 2014
Brown Pelican diving Brown Pelican. Photo by Marcello Gomes via Birdshare.

In 2003, a movie called The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill told the story of an eccentric, sensitive, periodically homeless man named Mark Bittner and the flock of 40+ cherry-headed conures (technically, Red-masked Parakeets) he had befriended in San Francisco, California. The movie’s mix of keen observation and exceptional tenderness toward its stars, both human and parakeet, turned it into an audience favorite. Eventually it earned the fourth-highest gross for any documentary film about animals.

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At the time, few people probably paid attention to the logo of the production company, Pelican Media, as it flashed onscreen during the opening credits. But this week, with the release of producer/director Judy Irving’s remarkable next film, Pelican Dreams, her company’s name illustrates how long she has been fascinated by these familiar but strange, stupendously gawky birds. In fact, Irving says, the Wild Parrots story was originally an interruption to her pelican project.

Now she’s turned back to her first love, and Pelican Dreams is both a natural progression from Wild Parrots and a close companion in terms of its tone and approach. Pelican Dreams features more of Irving’s detailed natural history footage, but this material never overshadows the questions she is really interested in: What does it mean to be wild? How closely can a wild animal live to humans and retain its essential nature? When we project our wishes and longings on animals, what does it say about our own wildness? You can watch this movie and join the director in pondering these imponderables, or you can watch it for the beautiful natural history sequences—it works both ways.

““Gigi” stops traffic on Golden Gate Bridge in the opening scene of Pelican Dreams. Photo courtesy Judy Irving/Pelican Media.

The stars of Pelican Dreams are two young Brown Pelicans undergoing rehab. One was found emaciated during a traffic jam on Golden Gate Bridge; Irving names her “Gigi.” The other, “Morro,” is cared for in a Doctor Doolittle-like homestead owned by rehabilitators near Morro Bay, in central California. Irving follows these pelicans and the people who care for them as the birds recuperate, bond with their caretakers, and attempt to regain enough strength to return to the wild.

Along the way, we take detours to breeding colonies in California’s Channel Islands and in Baja California, to a “Coney Island for pelicans” on an island in the Columbia River, to fishing boats and wharves where fishermen fling bones and fish heads to waiting pelicans, not realizing the birds will choke on these big scraps. We learn about how DDT almost doomed these birds to extinction, and we briefly visit the Gulf of Mexico for a few heartbreaking seconds of a pelican mired in Deepwater Horizon oil (footage originally shot by a Cornell Lab team).

In Wild Parrots, Irving took the unorthodox approach of inserting herself into the margins of the film. In Pelican Dreams, she goes even farther and makes an intensely personal movie. Though it brings in the varied voices of rehabilitators, biologists, fishing captains, and members of the public, the central voice is Irving’s. It’s a tribute to her filmmaking that she can balance natural history, two narrative arcs about injured birds, and her own sense of yearning and wonder in a movie that also features long, quiet stretches of beautiful cinematography and music. There’s no hyperbole, no melodrama, no forced humor. Her narration is honest, plaintive, vulnerable.

She’s also unabashedly sentimental. As Wild Parrots did with its stars, this movie relentlessly asks how Gigi and Morro are feeling, whether they’re lonely, whether they may fall in love someday, whether they are trying to teach us something, whether they dream. This focus on the inner soul of a pelican may rankle some viewers looking for a more measured view of the animals themselves. On the other hand, this is also the emotional cord that ties many people to animals, that lies close to the heart of the environmental ethic, and that made Wild Parrots such an affecting story for so many moviegoers.

Judy Irving (filmmaker) & Gigi (pelican) in the aviary at International Bird Rescue. Photo courtesy Judy Irving/Pelican Media.

And in this movie, Irving wisely balances her own heart-on-sleeve viewpoint with the studious approach of Gigi’s rehabilitator, Monte Merrick. He bears a passing resemblance to Mark Bittner: glasses, kindly demeanor, curly brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. But unlike Bittner, Merrick is resolutely scientific with his charges. He evaluates their weight, determines their sex by their bill length; reaches down their throats to feed them Pedialyte; measures their progress toward flight; refers to them by their band numbers. When Irving suggests they give Gigi her name, he politely declines, “so that we remember that they’re not pets.” When his patients are fit enough to return to the wild, he does not attend the releases.

That’s not to say he’s unfeeling—in a cage full of nearly identical pelicans, he remarks on how much cuter Gigi is than the others. To soothe her during her initial physical exam, he calls her “sweetie pie.” His pragmatism and emotional distance are a different, but no less caring, approach than Irving’s.

For moviegoers, pelicans are perhaps a slightly harder sell than parakeets, which are cute, colorful birds with big eyes and a tendency to nuzzle and preen each other. Parakeets are as cute as we wish we were; pelicans (on land, anyway) are as gawky as we fear we are.

Fortunately for viewers, that earthbound goofiness is balanced with shots of wild birds in their element, soaring on rock-solid wings or half-twisting in midair to plunge arrowlike into the water. Irving has a few moments of genius camera angles that create a kind of transcendent film beauty: I could watch slow motion shots pretty much forever of pelicans diving in a frenzy into a school of sardines.

There’s also an ingenious half-in-the-water shot that shows the birds feeding at the surface. Paddling their big feet, plunging with their bills after fish, they are caught midway between their awkwardness on land and their imperturbable grace in the air. Irving is caught too, between attachment to the pelicans she has come to know, and her desire to restore them to wildness. Perhaps the closest she, or we, can come to joining them is to follow them with her camera lens until they disappear into the northern California fog.

Pelican Dreams is 80 minutes long, rated G. It opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, November 7, 2014. You can find more information, including theaters and dates, at the Pelican Dreams website.

Watch the Pelican Dreams trailer:


  • Slava

    I’m not shure, maybe you know name of this birds?
    [youtube video]

  • Hugh

    Hi – the birds in your video look like nuthatches. Depending on where you live, they may be Eurasian Nuthatches, Sitta europaea?

  • Anthony

    the birds in the video above are brown pelicans (eastern top,western bottom)