Free Willy. Seriously.

The Cove expertly exposes the horrific treatment of dolphins, but what about the uglies?

Late in the infectiously frisky documentary The Cove, an older man calmly gate-crashes an international conference on whaling with a television screen strapped to his chest, showing bloody images of the mass slaughter of dolphins in a pretty cove off the coast of Japan. It's a show-stopping publicity stunt by dolphin advocate Ric O'Barry. It's also one act of an ongoing ritual of public penance by this onetime hunter and trainer of dolphins for the popular 1960s television series Flipper. O'Barry came to understand that dolphins cutting up on TV or in aquariums around the world may provide oceans of fun for audiences but that it's torture for the sociable, intelligent mammals forcibly separated from their fellows and habitat.

The sleepy-eyed but intense O'Barry — who now spends his days slipping into Japan in silly disguises to avoid getting arrested by the police or attacked by irate fisherman at the infamous cove where dolphins are culled for export or killed — is the perfect star for this forthrightly activist film. But he's far from the only performance artist in the rousing blend of pop entertainment, faux-thriller, horror movie, and naked agitprop that is The Cove, a benign feat of manipulation designed to make you rue every minute you spent oohing and aahing at SeaWorld.

It's also designed to make you call for the blood of the Japanese government, which lobbies strenuously against international efforts to protect small crustaceans (as opposed to whales) and secretively protects the fishermen who cruelly trap thousands of dolphins a year to either sell for export or kill for, as it turns out, mercury-contaminated meat that shows up not only in delicatessens around the world but in the school lunches of Japanese children.

"To my mind, either you're an activist or an inactivist," says director Louie Psihoyos, a photographer and cofounder of the Ocean Preservation Society. Psihoyos, whose smooth skin and emerald eyes make him look more than a little cetacean himself, possesses the showboating instincts and righteous rage of Michael Moore but without Moore's bile or self-importance. The Cove is the exuberantly theatrical and often funny story of Psihoyos and his team of overgrown, authority-averse schoolboys (and one tender girl, deep-sea diver Mandy Rae-Cruikshank, whom we see, in a beautiful sequence, mimicking the graceful movements of the dolphins as she swims underwater with them). This self-described "Ocean's Eleven" includes a stuntman and a gung-ho team of designers from Industrial Light and Magic, who create fake rocks with hidden cameras to plant around the cove and record the mass murder of these lovely mammals.

Lovely is the operative word. Skillful and hugely entertaining as it is, I'm not sure The Cove would be quite as potent as it is if the subject were, say, walruses instead of dolphins—a made-for-Disney subspecies if ever there were one. Programmed by nature to make us go "Awwwww," dolphins are the Goldie Hawns of endangered species. They're bright, funny, playful, and cute — and, by some freak of nature, they appear to be grinning most of the time. O'Barry laments the anthropomorphization that has turned dolphins into circus clowns in aquariums around the world, but he's not above ascribing human motivation to them himself. When one of the dolphins stops breathing in his arms, he calls its death a suicide. Maybe, maybe not. The Cove is properly enchanting, horrifying, and rousing, but it comes dangerously close to making the narcissistic case that dolphins deserve to be saved because they're cute and breathe air like we do.

 
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