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Case Number 26601: Small Claims Court

Buy Blackfish at Amazon


Magnolia Pictures // 2013 // 83 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 20th, 2013

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All Rise...

Judge Clark Douglas is canceling his trip to Sea World.

Editor's Note

Our review of Blackfish (Blu-ray), published November 16th, 2013, is also available.

The Charge

Never capture what you can't.

The Case

On February 24th, 2010, a SeaWorld trainer named Dawn Brancheau was killed by an orca named Tilikum. Though the ethics and safety of keeping killer whales in captivity had certainly been questioned in the past, the incident sparked a whole new wave of news stories and articles on the subject. The documentary Blackfish aims to examine the event in even greater depth, presenting a fairly damning case against the beloved amusement park and making an even stronger case for the notion that killer whales simply shouldn't be kept in captivity.

The documentary is at its strongest and most compelling when it sticks to statistics. SeaWorld had been telling its patrons that orcas live longer in captivity. This is false (orcas have significantly longer lifespans in the wild). SeaWorld had been telling its patrons that over 25 percent of orcas suffer from dorsal fin collapse. This is false (less than 1 percent of orcas in the wild are afflicted with this condition). There are many documented incidents of SeaWorld blatantly misleading the public for the sake of preserving their public image, and there's a good deal of evidence to suggest that killer whales are better off being free (something those who grew up with the Free Willy films will likely agree with, anyway). There's more than enough here to prevent me from ever feeling a need to visit SeaWorld.

Here's the problem, though: Blackfish occasionally undercuts its message by making vague, emotional arguments rather than fact-driven ones on certain subjects. We're told the story of a drifter who snuck into the park during the '90s and drowned while swimming with the killer whales. We're then treated to clips of several people talking about how fishy and suspicious the whole thing seems, but the fact of the matter is that there simply isn't any hard evidence to suggest that things didn't happen exactly as SeaWorld claimed. Mixing and matching strong accusations with weak ones doesn't really help the film's cause.

Additionally, we aren't given enough info on the people providing us with most of this information. The primary voices in the film are a handful of former SeaWorld trainers, but there isn't really any substantial info on how long they worked for the park or why they wound up leaving (or whether they were let go). They certainly seem like earnest, good-hearted people who only want the best for the orcas they worked with, but the film doesn't bother providing skeptics with their credentials. Again, there's enough here to ensure that Blackfish leaves a permanent mark on SeaWorld's reputation, but it's hard not feel that it could have been a knockout punch.

The DVD transfer is exceptional, offering strong detail and depth throughout. Of course there's a good deal of archival footage present and some of it is quite rough-looking, but that's par for the course with any doc. The Dolby 5.1 surround track is effective, allowing Jeff Beal's insinuating score to really shine. Supplements include an audio commentary with director Gabriela Cowperwaithe and producer Manny Oyteza, a handful of very short featurettes ("Kanduke with Former Trainer Dean Gomersall," "Death by Mosquito in Marine Parks with Former Trainer John Jett," "Orca Teeth Show the Stress of Orcas in Captivity with Jeffrey Ventre," "Recollections of a Former SeaWorld Trainer with John Hargrove," "The Truth About Wild Whales: Interview with Dr. Naomi Rose," "Alternatives to Captivity" and "A Note From Gabriela Cowperwaithe") and a trailer.

Blackfish falls short of being the documentary masterpiece many have suggested, but it's a worthwhile film that stands a solid chance of making a real difference.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• English (SDH)
• Spanish
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
• Documentary
• Science and Nature

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Featurettes
• Trailer


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