Tilikum in "Blackfish."

Tilikum in "Blackfish." Credit: MCT

In February 2010, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, a veteran trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., was dragged into the marine park's pool and killed by Tilikum, a 12,000-pound killer whale that had been implicated in two previous deaths. In Gabriela Cowperthwaite's intense and impassioned documentary "Blackfish" -- the name given the mammal by the First Nations people of the Pacific Northwest -- the unpredictable Tilikum is thrown on the mercy of the court (aka the audience): Having been in captivity since 1983, when SeaWorld whale hunters tore the then-2-year-old from his mother, Tilikum has led a nearly three- decade existence of unnatural confinement, cruel tedium, and an existence that made him nothing less than a time bomb.

The real criminals, "Blackfish" attests, are the leaders of an industry that exploits wild animals, puts humans in perilous contact with them, and is built on a Disneyfied fallacy about cuddly orcas and their alleged domestication. It's all about commerce, Cowperthwaite claims, and she makes a pretty solid case, abetted in no small way by SeaWorld, which refused to talk to her and is shown to have misled the public in several cases involving violence and its animals. Interviewing ex-trainers and availing herself of footage that must have SeaWorld's lawyers doing dolphin-like back flips, the director indicts not just SeaWorld but the entire marine park industry -- and, by extension, zoos, aquariums and circuses.

What the director doesn't quite do, for all her amazing footage and humane arguments, is construct a story that flows with anything like the grace of the animals she champions. Animal lovers will be thrilled with the great deal of information intelligently collected and disseminated. Those who insist that their documentaries possess coherent narratives, however, may feel otherwise.

PLOT Documentary investigation into the 2010 death of a trainer at SeaWorld, and an argument against the captivity of wild animals for human amusement

RATING PG-13 (violence, adult situations)


BOTTOM LINE Informative, earnest, but less than briskly paced

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