Creature Feature Bleachers Award: Cutest Baby Shark.
For the most part, “Beyond the Reef” exceeds expectations. It’s a slow-moving, cozy little film with slightly outrageous characters and a premise that skirts the boundary between bizarre and magical. In short, this film would easily fit into the Studio Ghibli canon alongside such quiet classics as “My Neighbor Totorro” and “Castle in the Sky.” And, like “Mako: The Jaws of Death,” this film offers that rarest of sharksploitation rarities: the sympathetic shark. No mindless killer here, but a playful, wise shark who offers valued companionship. In an uncommon turnaround here at the Creature Feature Bleachers, we get an essentially happy film filled with positive feelings, strong bonds, and occasional female toplessness.
Yeah, that last one’s a bit unexpected.
Pacific Islander Tikoyo (Joseph and Dayton Ka’ne as the younger and older versions, respectively) has it made. His mentor Manidu (Oliverio Maciel Diaz) teaches him what he needs to know about life, while his friend Diana (Titaua Castel and Maren Jensen, respectively) fills the rest of his hours. Tikoyo’s life becomes even richer when Manidu brings him a baby tiger shark whose mother has just been killed. Tikoyo and the shark form an instant bond, helping to fill the gap when Diana returns to America for school. Shortly thereafter, Manidu dies and wills his spirit into the shark. Several years later, Diana returns to find Tikoyo living alone with Manidu (now the shark). At Manidu’s playful urging, the two fall in love. But can Tikoyo and Manidu prevent Diana’s evil brother Jeff (Keahi Farden) from finding the hidden treasure of black pearls? Or will Jeff succeed in killing Manidu and separating Tikoyo from Diana?
It’s a little hard to tell if “Beyond the Reef” is actually a heart-warming movie, or if it simply appears nice in comparison to the usual soul-crushing sharksploitation sludge that has slowly but surely melted my brain over the course of 48 interminable weeks of sheer torture and absolute suffering, to the extent that the opening scene of every godforsaken shark movie instantly reduces me to a vegetative mental state as a pitiably vain defense mechanism designed to shield me in some small measure from the awful assault of putrid garbage before my eyes.
Could be either one, I don’t know.
The movie also has one of the saddest shark death scenes in sharksploitation history. Usually the whole premise of the film is that the characters want to kill the shark but can’t. “Beyond the Reef” switches things up, as we get to witness the tragic events of Manidu’s birth. The scene is really quite beautiful. Stabbed by defensive pearl divers, Manidu’s mother slowly twists to the ocean floor, exhaling blood through her gills with each breath. As her body enters its final death throes, tiny Manidu wriggles out of her womb, swimming alone into the wide wet ocean. Rarely have I seen the death of a shark represented in such a dignified and somber way.
The good news is that Manidu and Tikoyo grow up to be very loyal friends, watching out for each other and living in harmony. This is where things start moving from ‘charming’ to ‘weird’. Tikoyo sleeps in a little hut on a dock, and as a grown-up, he builds a trap door into the floor of his hut so that Manidu can splash him to wake him up. Seriously, spending all day with the shark isn’t enough, so he needs to sleep with Manidu right next to him?!? Furthermore, Manidu purrs when he’s happy. Now, it’s common sharksploitation ‘knowledge’ that sharks can growl, but I can’t remember one ever purring before. Perhaps it’s because Manidu’s a tiger shark (yuck yuck yuck). And I suppose that all of my complaints should be balanced against the outlandish premise that an old man’s spirit lives inside the shark. Especially when it was a weird old man to start with.
In addition to the upbeat feel and shirtless hairy old guys, “Beyond the Reef” has some pretty solid shark cinematography. The film lives up to my expectation that animal movies should have animals in them, not CGI. I will admit, I don’t particularly like shark wrangler Ramón Bravo, whose earlier work on “Cyclone” and [shudder] “Tintorera” leaves a lot to be desired. To wit, I don’t consider it okay to actually kill real sharks for the purpose of making a movie, as Bravo did on multiple occasions. Yet, he did very good work on “Beyond the Reef,” supplying the skill necessary to pull off an animal movie made with real animals. The shark followed the script and never appeared menacing at an inappropriate time. The bond between Tikoyo and Manidu is so believable that if “Jaws” unnecessarily scared people off of the beaches, then “Beyond the Reef” probably made them think that sharks are good pets.
In lieu of a trailer, here’s a video of one of those throat-constricting free diving scenes:
“Beyond the Reef” is available on Amazon (for $79?!?!).