2012 / 44 minutes
Equal parts detective story and nature documentary, Flight of the Butterflies tells the story of “Dana” and her offspring, beautiful monarch butterflies making their way across the United States. It also showcases the investigative work of biologist Fred Urquhart and his wife Norah, who spent their lives trying to discover where the butterflies were going on their yearly migration.
The nature half is simply stunning, and deserves a widescreen TV viewing – you’d lose so much watching it on your phone. We get to follow Dana as she flutters from plant to plant, laying her more than 300 eggs, and get to tag along, too, as she flies as much as a mile up into the heavens. Then, when we eventually see one of Dana’s grandchildren form her chrysalis, we get a peek inside:
“Fed oxygen by hundreds of fine breathing tubes. her brain, heart and digestive track change shape and size. New powerful flight muscles develop, and compound eyes form. Long legs and steady wings complete the transformation.”
The caterpillar to butterfly transformation is astonishing – one creature becoming something else entirely! But it gets even crazier: while Dana didn’t live all that long, and her daughter didn’t either, they somehow manage to spawn a granddaughter that will look just like them, but be another sort of creature once again: Dana’s granddaughter is a “super butterfly destined to live eight times longer” than either of the two previous generations!
The mystery half is fun too. An actor familiar to many Canadians, Gordon Pinsent (Beachcombers, The Red Green Show) plays Fred Urquhart who recruits the help of regular folk – “citizen scientists” – all over the United States to help him tag, and then track the flight paths of monarch butterflies. After gathering this information for decades he can tell they fly south towards Texas, but where do these millions of butterflies go afterward? I won’t spoil things: you’ll have to watch it to find out.
The documentary opens with a quick nod to Darwin, with biologist Fred Urquhart declaring, “It has been said since Darwin’s time that evolution has been written on the wings of a butterfly. I know my life has.” Another similar sort of “nod” happens elsewhere, but the brilliant design evident in the monarch’s lifecycle and remarkable migration far outshine these little mars.
There are also a few mentions made of man-caused environmental issues that might impact the monarch, including a passing mention of global warming. But these are very brief, and the film is not any sort of anti-man screed. As with many a secular nature documentary perhaps the most notable caution is simply that in a film about a creature whose beauty and amazing lifecycle screams out the glory of its Creator, the film never gives God His due. But we can make up for this deficiency.
Fred and Norah Urquhart spent 50 years learning all about the monarch, and in this remarkable film we get to come along for that journey of discovery. This is a quiet film – there are no explosions to be found – so it isn’t going to be to everyone’s tastes. But maybe it should be – if the brilliance of the monarch butterfly doesn’t fill us with awe at God’s genius, maybe it’s time we stopped watching so many car chases and superhero battles and sharpened up our sense of awe. Regardless, for the nature lover in your family this will be something special.
You can watch the trailer below, and watch the film for free here.