Since 2009, Disney’s nature-documentary label Disneynature has generally celebrated Earth Day by releasing a new movie in theaters, and while nearly all movie theaters are shut down this year, that hasn’t stopped the tradition from continuing. Dolphin Reef is one of two new Disneynature movies premiering on Disney+ to commemorate Earth Day (Elephant is the other), with the same kid-friendly educational formula (fueled by a celebrity narrator) that has worked for movies including African Cats, Monkey Kingdom and last year’s Penguins.
In Dolphin Reef, the celebrity narrator is Natalie Portman, who brings a slightly more subdued energy to her work than some past Disneynature voice actors. That’s a welcome change from the overly wacky narration that Ed Helms delivered in Penguins, even if Dolphin Reef still manufactures a cutesy story to frame its often gorgeous footage of undersea life in the Pacific. The main “character” here is a three-year-old bottlenose dolphin named Echo, who needs to learn to fend for himself and not rely on the protection of his mother Kumu. It’s a very Disney-style coming-of-age story, with Echo portrayed as a goofy dreamer who’s easily distracted by the wonders of nature around him.
Crafting a story with recognizable characters may be a bit of a cheat, but it’s an effective way for these movies to build stakes and maintain viewer interest, and the narrative structure of Dolphin Reef is loose enough that it allows for plenty of subplots and digressions, giving a full sense of the ecosystem around a coral reef just off the island coast. The other main plot thread also involves a mother and son, a pair of humpback whales seeking a male for protection. The parallel between Echo and Kumu and the two whales gives the movie a pleasant symmetry that should be easy for kids to follow.
That’s really the point of these movies, and with so many schools closed right now, Dolphin Reef is a reliable tool for parents to keep kids occupied for 80 minutes or so, while actually learning something along the way. As with most Disneynature movies, there’s a gentle but insistent environmental message wrapped up in the familiar storytelling and factoids about marine life. There are silly moments for kids to laugh at, most courtesy of the movie’s real breakout star, the colorful and extremely gross-looking peacock mantis shrimp, whom the movie dubs Mr. Mantis and portrays as a fidgety fussbudget.
Originally released in 2018 in France under the title Blue with narration from actress Cécile de France, Dolphin Reef has been sitting on Disney’s shelf for a while now, and the Portman-narrated version was set for theatrical release last year before being held back for streaming. So it may not be Disneynature’s best work, but it’s still full of lovely underwater photography, which longtime producer Alastair Fothergill (credited here as co-director alongside Keith Scholey) has become an expert at overseeing in his years with Disneynature and the BBC.
Other Disneynature movies may have a broader scope (especially 2009’s Earth, still the studio’s top-grossing release) or tell more cohesive stories, but Dolphin Reef accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, delivering both fascinating facts about animals and a strong lesson about the importance of cooperation among species. In a time of great uncertainty, it’s comforting and hopeful.