What parents need to know
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Otter 501 is a nature documentary with a semi-scripted framing story/character instead of the typical narrator. Like most nature documentaries, the film contains some potentially disturbing scenes -- like of a crying otter pup clinging to its dead mother's body. The otter mom's shark bite is shown, and the audience is told that the pup is unlikely to survive. And there are other sad moments when otters don't make it or are lost and presumed dead. Ultimately, though, this is an incredibly educational documentary about otters' life cycle and their importance as one of the ocean's most interesting and important species. Younger otter lovers may not have the attention span needed to follow some of the movie's longer explanations, but science- and animal-oriented tweens are sure to pick up lots of great facts.
What's the story?
In OTTER 501 -- a documentary with a seemingly scripted framing story -- viewers are introduced to the Sea Otter Research and Conservation program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium via a fresh-faced young marine biologist named Katie (Katie Pofahl) who's visiting California from Wisconsin for six months. While in California, she encounters a stranded, orphaned otter the aquarium calls Otter 501. Attached to the cute and cuddly otter, Katie volunteers at the aquarium, where she learns all about the history and significance of sea otters, which were once plentiful but are now endangered.
Is it any good?
Despite the appealing central character and the adorable animals on display, Otter 501 requires patience and a long attention span to make it worthwhile. Even though Katie is young and spends a lot of time sharing her experiences on Facebook and via text, it's obvious that a lot of what she's saying is scripted, because it sounds almost like she's acting instead of just being herself. It takes a while to get used to the movie's hybrid format; those who prefer a traditional, distinguished-sounding narrator might be confused or bothered by Katie's presence.
In a more traditional documentary, the filmmakers would have interviewed the aquarium staff and spoken to various academics who could put the historical significance of sea otters in context. In Otter 501, Katie and computer graphics and archive photos provide the exposition whenever the camera isn't focused on the otters themselves. Observant audiences will learn a great deal about what makes otters such a miraculous species (did you know the great otter hunt of the 19th century helped finance the Industrial Revolution?), but younger kids (and some parents) might find the nearly 90-minute exploration of the endangered species a bit of a stretch.
Families can talk about...
Families can talk about the enduring popularity of animal-specific nature documentaries. Once shown only as TV specials, now there are more and more wildlife documentaries. Which ones capture animals the best, and which ones make animals seem more human than animal?
Otter 501 is different than most, because instead of a narrator or filmmaker explaining events, we learn about the animals through the character of Katie. Was it confusing to figure out whether Katie was "real" or not? Do you prefer a traditional narrator or this style of documentary?
How do you think viewers can take Katie's message about saving the otters to heart? In what way can your family help the cause of caring for endangered species?