In capturing the beauty and culture of three far-flung islands endangered by climate change, "Beautiful Islands" director Tomoko Kana has created more of a travelogue with a message than a satisfying documentary. Though its stirring imagery and evocative human interactions sincerely attempt to reflect global warming's effect on the South Pacific's Tuvalu (the world's fourth-smallest country); Venice, Italy; and Shishmaref, Alaska; the film's lack of effective structure or unifying narration — not to mention a more discerning editor than Kana — make for a mostly uninvolving sit. In short, it's pretty but dull.
The filmmaker spends 30 or so minutes on each distinctive island (plus an overlong coda back on Tuvalu), leisurely presenting their postcard-like vistas, native populations and local traditions and livelihoods. These amorphous introductions eventually give way to several eye-opening examples of how increasingly high tides, attributed here to global warming, are affecting each area: Tuvalu is considered to be the first country ever to sink, while Venice's canals are seen overflowing to almost surreal effect and Shishmaref residents ponder mass emigration before their beloved land vanishes from erosion.
This is vital information, to be sure, but also too complex and potentially sweeping to impart without context or professional punditry. Note to Kana: A picture isn't always worth 1,000 words.