“Path of the Panther,” a new nature documentary about the fight to preserve the Florida Everglades and its titular feline, never lets you forget that the clock is ticking, and time is of the essence, both in its urgency and its crisp concision.
The National Geographic production, which is getting the kind of theatrical rollout that's increasingly rare for this kind of content, often plays like a throwback to the family-friendly animal films that filled matinee slots at your neighborhood cinema back in the '70s and early '80s. It's also bolstered by a sobering outlook about humanity's future and its role in the planet's environmental decay. Can a nonfiction feature aimed at most age groups be at once startlingly grim and anchored by a guarded optimism? This one is.
The film's central figure, our tour guide of sorts, is Florida-based wildlife photographer Clayton Ward Jr. The National Geographic Explorer is searching for the holy grail of Sunshine State nature shutterbugs: a clear picture of the ever-elusive Florida panther.
But before taking viewers on Ward's quest, writer-director Eric Bendick begins with an unfortunate scene that's ripped from the headlines. Yet another panther has been struck and killed on a Florida roadway. The filmmaker wastes no time in informing viewers that vehicular collisions is the number one cause of death for the endangered species. To his credit, he also refuses to look away from the animal's body.
“Panther” alternates between Bendick's obsessive attempts to nail that perfect shot and other prominent figures on the front lines of the ongoing struggle to literally give the species a path forward. At issue is the Florida Wildlife Corridor, nearly 18 million acres of land and bodies of water that support wildlife across the state. Ward says aggressive development has cut off the section of the corridor that would enable the panther to travel north and give the animals a better chance to repopulate. Posing even more of a threat, Ward cautions, are three proposed toll roads that would further jeopardize the panther's survival and, in his words, “destroy the heart of Florida.”
By structuring the film as a scavenger hunt, Bendick can make subject matter that often comes across as dry and academic more easily digestible to viewers looking to be entertained. The filmmaker initially opts against providing a year as a signpost for viewers, but as Hurricane Irma threatens the swath of the Everglades where most of the movie is set, it becomes clear the documentary begins in the mid-2010s and goes forward from there.
Bendick also goes overboard in making “Panther” feel cinematic. Slick camerawork and frequent overhead shots flirt with stylistic overkill, and a nearly wall-to-wall music score by Kevin Matley underlines every point, so much so that it becomes an intrusion rather than a complement. These crutches are unnecessary to a story with considerable built-in appeal. The talking heads here, an eclectic assortment of veterinarians, wildlife officials, ranchers, conservationists and Native American residents, capably propel the narrative without the need for the 'roided up visual style.
“Path of the Panther” is actually at its strongest during its still moments. Bendick, for instance, lets viewers seen the swampland critters that wander past Ward's cameras with triggers. It's safe to say there are enough glimpses of bears and gators to satisfy animal lovers looking for a foray into Florida's four-legged troublemakers, whose exploits frequently pepper local news cycles following the top stories.
Another aspect in the movie's favor: It resists going the cute route when depicting the animals. The lure of anthropomorphizing wild creatures is a trap that, for example, the Disneynature series of documentaries over the past decade too often fell into. This “Panther” is sleek, unsentimental and plainspoken, at least when it's not compelled to repeat its dire warnings about the environment, as is the case for a project with Leonardo DiCaprio credited as an executive producer. Preachiness is not a good look, but there's enough just-the-facts clarity here to offset the finger-wagging, and at just under 90 minutes, it never turns into a chore.
Where “Panther” eventually comes up short is in taking the state administration to task for its political maneuvering. The film appears to be gearing up to take a stand and point the finger at the powers that be for prioritizing the almighty dollar over Florida's ecological health, but that fire in its belly fizzles out, and a doc that flows with the stealthy resolve of a puma on the hunt ends up behaving like the Cowardly Lion before he got his courage. A climactic legislative victory featuring our current governor, all for the sake of giving this tale an upbeat and uncomplicated ending, rings hollow.
What happened to “Path of the Panther's” claws? The film's reticence when dealing with matters of policy and executive hypocrisy makes it come across as more than a tad defanged. There's no denying the elemental power that its subject exudes. There is certainly no doubt that it belongs on the big screen. But this reasonably engaging doc also shows that it's kind of futile to tell a Florida story without fully wading into the murky waters of Florida politics. And here I was thinking this big kitty likes to scratch.
“Path of the Panther” has prowled its way into South Florida theaters, including the Silverspot Cinema in downtown Miami, AMC Aventura, AMC Sunset Place, Regal Oakwood and Cinemark Paradise.