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Originally published Saturday, October 20, 2012 at 5:30 AM

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'Flight of the Butterflies': A must-see 3-D IMAX journey

"Flight of the Butterflies," a superb mixture of nature photography and computer-generated images, is a feast for the eyes and one of the best 3-D IMAX documentaries.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 4 stars

'Flight of the Butterflies,' with Gordon Pinsent, Patricia Phillips. Directed by Mike Slee, from a screenplay by Slee and Wendy MacKeigan. 44 minutes. Rated G. Boeing IMAX Theater, Pacific Science Center.

Pacific Science Center's Tropical Butterfly House is open 9:45 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 9:45 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. IMAX admission is $6-$9. IMAX admission plus admission to all Pacific Science Center exhibits (including Tropical Butterfly House) is $13-$20.

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A feast for the eyes and clearly a labor of love, "Flight of the Butterflies" is one of the must-see 3-D IMAX movies. A superb mixture of nature photography and computer-generated images, it sets out to make the case that "evolution is written on the wings of butterflies."

The script is part mystery, part fairy tale, part biography. Where do millions of monarch butterflies migrate each year? Can they be tagged and tracked? Could the goal of their long journey be a Mexican mountain range/winter haven? And do they really live on milkweed, which seems poisonous to potential predators?

The narrator picks and names one of the insects, Dana (aka Danaus Plexippus), and watches what happens as she produces a daughter and a granddaughter. Three generations are represented during their migration from Mexico to the United States to Canada and back to Mexico, though the mortality rate can be severe. Only about 1 percent survive attacks by birds and other creatures.

Gradually, almost inevitably, director and co-writer Mike Slee (who made another 3-D IMAX movie, "Bugs!") pulls together these varied narrative elements as he focuses on the life of the pioneering Canadian zoologist, Dr. Fred Urquhart (1911-2002).

Played by veteran Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent (he was Julie Christie's bewildered husband in "Away From Her" and the JFK-like American President in "Colossus: The Forbin Project"), Urquhart sometimes comes off as an absent-minded-professor type.

But his dedication is never in question, and in the end it's quite moving. One result of his four decades of work: UNESCO's 2008 declaration that the Mexico butterfly reserve is a World Heritage Site.

Included as part of the technical team on the picture was macro photographer Peter Parks, who worked on Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" and provided many of the extreme close-ups in Slee's film. The shots of butterflies flying high and making navigational adjustments, far above the Earth, are especially astonishing.

Among the butterfly experts who contributed advice were Dr. Chip Taylor, Dr. Lincoln Brower and Dr. Karen Oberhauser.

Like all the best not-quite-feature-length IMAX documentaries, "Flight of the Butterlies" focuses on one subject and never overstays its welcome. Just 44 minutes long, it's a rare coproduction of Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom.

At the Pacific Science Center, it follows a summer of American blockbusters featuring comic-book heroes. The new James Bond movie, "Skyfall," will get the IMAX treatment Nov. 9, followed by the 3-D edition of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (Dec. 14). One of the last IMAX documentaries to be shot and released on film (not digital) is "Rocky Mountain Express" (Nov. 16)

John Hartl:

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