Amiable nature of "Otter 501" is a salute to the sea otter

Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif.July 12, 2012 

Not quite fiction and not quite straight documentary, "Otter 501" is a nature story of great appeal to two very particular demographic groups -- those who live in the Monterey Bay, Calif., region and those whose serious weakness for painfully cute animals has turned into a serious interest in wildlife biology.

The mildly off-putting title is nevertheless direct. This is the story of a single otter, dubbed "501" by the folks of the otter preservation program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Set and shot in and around Monterey, this is what used to be called an educational film, an attempt to clue in us oblivious land mammals to the often stark challenges faced by other creatures, in the case the sea otters who have become a symbol of Monterey and its surroundings.

Our host is Katie, a recent graduate with a degree in biology who falls head over heels in love with Monterey. Katie is "played by" an attractive, enthusiastic, corn-fed young woman named Katie Pofahl, so let's go ahead and put away our comparisons to Streep. This is not what you would typically call acting.

Still, there's a kind of fiction taking place here. Katie tells her story via video Facebook posts, speaking directly to her computer ostensibly to the folks back home wondering what the heck she's doing in California.

The short answer is that she's just kind of goofing off, enjoying the ocean, when she discovers a young otter apparently abandoned by its mother. The aquarium team swoops in to bring the otter into its program while Katie decides to sign up as a volunteer in the program to follow the process of turning 501 from a rescued pup into a mature adult which can fend for itself.

The otter is -- excuse the awkwardly alliterative mixed metaphor -- an odd duck in the animal kingdom. It's a marine mammal not very far, evolutionarily speaking, from its land-based origins. We learn that the otter is yet another victim of the rapacious monsters known as humans. Because of excess hunting and poaching, the otter became functionally extinct, until a small group of them were discovered near Monterey, thus that town's link to the otter.

After the brief history lesson, "501" turns essentially into an extended commercial for the aquarium, which, as commercials go, isn't a bad thing. It shows in detail the kind of thing that the aquarium does every day in preserving the marine environment of the California coast. Cute little 501 is brought in and introduced to what amounts to a foster mother, an older otter who shows the little one the tricks and techniques she needs to survive in the unforgiving real world.

The film is rated G, and is a great option for kids. Still, it doesn't shirk from explaining the Darwinian reality faced by otters whose adorability gives them exactly zero advantages in the wild. The film is as wholesome as nine-grain bread, but a parent or guardian may be obliged to explain the ruthless eat-or-be-eaten demands of the natural world.

Does 501 survive? Does Katie go back home to Wisconsin or stick it out in Monterey? Does she take a weekend to drive up Highway 1 to check out the Beach Boardwalk? We won't spoil it here. But, in the end, "Otter 501" finds just the right equilibrium between severe cuteness and the harsh way of nature.

2 1/2 stars

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

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