As mysterious as they are beautiful, monarch butterflies have roughly four-inch wingspans and weigh less than a penny. Yet these seemingly delicate beings are capable of up to a 3,000-mile migration between the northeast/Canada and California/Mexico.
The seasonal migration taps the efforts of three or four generations, including butterflies that emerge from the chrysalis in late summer and early fall with the instinct to fly south to a sunny ancestral haven that, amazingly, they have never visited.
This remarkable journey captured the imagination of a Canadian boy named Fred Urquhart, who spent nearly 40 years as a zoology professor trying to understand how the monarch managed it and where exactly the millions of butterflies overwintered.
Urquhart’s quest is the basis of “Flight of the Butterflies,” a compelling and even inspiring Imax movie opening Jan. 4 at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History.
The film is particularly effective in the way it parallels the journeys of the determined insect and the passionate scientist, suggesting both are driven by forces greater than themselves.
The places and things that are the typical subjects of the natural history-oriented Imax movies that are Fernbank’s niche rarely fail to captivate. But sometimes the people — the scientists whose research the films often are built around — are a little less supersized-screen ready. That’s understandable: Even tornado trackers and underseas explorers rarely possess the charisma of, say, George Clooney, just as monarchs don’t boast the onscreen personality, say, of the stars of “March of the Penguins.”
Given that Urquhart died in 2002, “Flight of the Butterflies” filmmakers chose to tell his story through dramatizations of the sort popular on TV shows such as the Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum.”
It was an effective choice. Veteran Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent makes Urquhart more three-dimensional than many of the scientists who appear in documentary-style Imax features.
The film shows how Urquhart and his partner in obsession, wife Nora, enlisted hundreds of North American “citizen scientists” to aid them in piecing together the monarch puzzle. They tapped this legion of amateur naturalists to help them tag (with pre-bar code price stickers) and track the butterflies.
The combined efforts finally paid off in 1976, when an elderly Urquhart was able to visit one of the key sanctuaries discovered by his team 10,000 feet up in the remote Sierra Madre Mountains of central Mexico. The film depicts a occurrence that seems like it couldn’t possibly be true but in fact was captured by a National Geographic photographer at the time. Amid millions of monarchs covering trees and the ground, Urquhart picked up one that had been tagged in Minnesota four months earlier.
Along the way, viewers also are treated to micro photography of the cocooning process shown in fast forward and of a caterpillar devouring a milkweed leaf, the butterfly’s source of energy. But learning more about the science of monarchs doesn’t take away from their mystique. “Flight of the Butterflies” only enhances it.