‘Playing With Sharks’ Review: Intrepid Journeys Undersea

The chipper documentary “Playing with Sharks” celebrates the life of the diver Valerie Taylor, who dedicated her career to marine photography and conservation. The film (on Disney+) plunges into Valerie’s work with sharks, which she and her husband Ron Taylor captured in a trove of close-range undersea footage.

As a young woman, Valerie was a champion spearfisher in Australia. But she soon renounced the sport in favor of less disruptive underwater activities. Alongside Ron, Valerie began capturing remarkable ocean images: whack-a-mole eels, rippling squid, a shiver of sharks noshing on a whale carcass. The Taylors were the first to film great whites from the open water without the shelter of a cage, and the couple’s trust in the intimidating creatures (or maybe just their audacity) made them master ocean reef videographers.

The documentary, directed by Sally Aitken, draws heavily from the underwater footage taken by Ron and others. Aitken intercuts these sequences with archival clips of Valerie’s chipper efforts as a shark advocate. Horrified by what she saw as a collective misunderstanding of a majestic animal, Valerie made it her mission to show that sharks — while requiring caution — have personalities and respond ably to training, like dogs.

But while Valerie’s compassion for sharks is contagious, Aitken insists on a tense mood, with a suspenseful score and unnerving editing straight out of a man-versus-beast blockbuster. “Playing With Sharks” would like to position Valerie as both intrepid diver and valiant activist, but with its focus on thrills and gills, the film goes light on the context needed to reconcile these two identities. Are we meant to recoil from sharks or care for them? Likely some of both, but the documentary comes out looking unsure.

Playing with Sharks
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. Watch on Disney+.

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