Greetings again from the darkness. Is this Canada’s answer to the ground-breaking documentary BLACKFISH (2013), which destroyed SeaWorld’s status as wholesome family entertainment? Well, kinda sorta. MarineLand is the popular amusement park located in Niagara Falls, Canada. It was founded in 1961 by John Holer, a former circus animal trainer, and has a catchy jingle known by most Canadians: “Everyone loves MarineLand!”
This is the first feature length documentary for director Nathalie Bibeau, and rather than structure as an expose’ (like BLACKFISH), this comes across as more of a psychological profile of Phil Demers, a former trainer at MarineLand, and the titular “whistleblower”. In 2012, he quit his job at the park and began going public with reports of the mistreatment of animals, in particular a walrus named Smooshi that Demers personally trained. He took to social media to make his case, and garnered thousands of followers as @WalrusWhisperer.
The park’s owner, John Holer, is referred to as ‘The King of Niagara’ and is cast as the villain to Demers’ crusading hero. As Demers’ social media generated more attention and he became involved with anti-captivity protesters outside the park, MarineLand filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against Demers, claiming he was “plotting to steal a walrus”. Now I’m no legal expert, but I would guess the number of lawsuits that mention a walrus is actually quite low, and it would be a bit humorous were it not for the ongoing mistreatment of animals.
Director Bibeau includes some archival footage of Demers and Smooshi inside MarineLand, and throughout the film there are clips showing animals and other trainers, although we are never really sure of the timeline. A significant portion of the time is spent with Demers (seen jogging and eating ice cream?) and his partner Christine, also a former MarineLand trainer, as they worry about the media attention and the financial implications of this legal battle.
Canadian politics and the economic impact of the fight against MarineLand collide, and we see and hear some of the dialogue that occurs between lawmakers and activists. We are also witness to an interesting conflict between the anti-captivity protesters and Demers, as he admits to not being a Vegan (eating steak makes him feel good). So he’s both an insider and outsider, as his passion for saving the park animals from drugs and food deprivation for training is admired, while his dietary preferences are most assuredly not.
MarineLand did not participate in the film, so what we have are Demers’ statements and passion, and the video clips. There is little doubt that animal abuse is occurring at the park, and director Bibeau does allow a most interesting comparison: thousands of paying customers vs the hand full of protesters. An often emotional Demers keeps our attention for most of the movie, but whether he’s enough for a full length documentary that lacks a true finale, is questionable. What would he do if granted custody of Smooshi? And why is his approach lacking in structure and organization? It often plays as one guy trying to correct a wrong while lacking a plan. To its credit, the film references the Lewis Carroll poem, The Walrus and the Carpenter, “The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things.” Animal rights is an ongoing issue, and … #SaveSmooshi
Theatrical release on October 9, 2020 and On Demand November 24, 2020