By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - After the animated lemur King Julien of "Madagascar" captured kids' attentions with his eccentricity, a new film takes them to the real, isolated world of the singing, dancing, mischievous lemurs.
"Island of Lemurs: Madagascar," out in IMAX theaters on Friday, takes audiences on a 3D adventure into the exotic habitat of the lemurs on the island of Madagascar, the only place in the world where they exist in the wild.
The 40-minute film, narrated by Morgan Freeman, explores and educates on the wide-eyed lemurs, a family of primate species that has been around for more than 60 million years, and the journey they took from Africa across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar, where they found a thriving natural habitat.
Freeman, whose calm and authoritative deep voice chronicled "March of the Penguins" in 2005, agreed to narrate the film to express the urgency of saving the planet's wildlife.
"We should all teach our kids about the importance of plain old diversity on the planet. The planet is sustained by diversity and we're killing it all. It's catastrophe," he said.
The film follows primatologist Patricia Wright as she strives to save certain lemur species from extinction, finding mates for the few left in the dense Madagascar forests.
"These extraordinary creatures that live in Madagascar are a lot like us. They have families, they raise their offspring and have problems with their offspring," Wright said.
From the Indri, the largest of the lemurs, to the smallest primate in the world, the mouse lemur, the dancing sifakas and the bamboo lemurs that seek out baby bamboo shoots to snack on, "Island of Lemurs" shows each animal's specific personalities.
Lemurs have largely been underrepresented in films and television due to their isolation on Madagascar, Freeman said, but the character of King Julien in the DreamWorks animated "Madagascar" films, voiced by British actor Sacha Baron Cohen, paved a path to awareness of lemurs. The films also feature the mouse lemur Mort, played by Andy Richter.
"As much as I love King Julien, I would have preferred it to be Queen Juliana, because females are leaders in lemurs," Wright said with a laugh. "I do think that animated cartoon did a tremendous amount for people's awareness of Madagascar."
The lemurs do face threats, especially some species that are close to extinction, from deforestation and poaching, as some Malagasy people are driven to eat local wildlife due to poverty. Some giant lemur species have already become extinct, and others are critically endangered as more than 90 percent of the island's forests have been destroyed.
"Lemurs are at the last chance stage in their long existence and we felt that they were disappearing simply through people's ignorance of them," director David Douglas said.
"Island of Lemurs," from Time Warner Inc's Warner Bros studios, shows village communities being re-educated on the unique nature of the lemurs and what they mean to the Madagascar ecosystem, encouraging their protection.
Douglas, who previously worked with Freeman on 2011 wildlife film "Born to Be Wild," said he felt nature programming in today's media has taken a turn for the "exploitative," focusing on the sensational aspects of the animal world.
With "Island of Lemurs," he wanted to showcase the gentle manner of the lemurs, such as capturing the extraordinary way they sing among the treetops to communicate with each other.
"We're trying to involve people and engage them with the entertainment side of the lives of these animals, because it is rich lives that they live," he said.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker)