Engaging doc 'Playing with Sharks' sinks its teeth into a fascinating life

Posted at 10:05 AM, Jul 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-21 13:05:25-04

TUCSON, Ariz. — You may not know the name Valerie Taylor, but you're probably familiar with her work.

An intrepid deep-sea photographer, she and her husband, Ron, captured some of the most fascinating shark footage ever. They paved the way for other photographers, nature-based reality shows and scientific research, helping to dispel myths that sharks were bloodthirsty man-eaters.

The documentary "Playing with Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story," which debuts July 23 on Disney+, sketches out the tale of the fascinating life Taylor has lived. Utilizing the best of Taylor's photographic body of work, director Sally Aitken shows how she overcame complications from polio as a child to become a spearfisher and photographer.

She met her husband Ron, and they parlayed their passion for underwater photography and nature conservation to international stardom. They made the talk show circuit rounds, appeared in magazines and eventually became consultants on films, including "Jaws."

In an archival interview, a young Steven Spielberg shares the dangers the crew faced. Because Valerie and Ron were so brave, they ended up capturing shots that weren't scripted but wound up in the film anyway. An anecdote about a shark that found its way inside a cage is particularly chilling.

The Taylors seemed to thrive on such adversity, working just as hard when fame came to them as they did when hardly anyone looked at their footage. Even though "Jaws" helped lift them to fame, they seemed to somewhat regret the part they played in making the movie a cultural phenomenon.

They worked tirelessly — together, until Ron's death in 2012 — to promote the concept that sharks are intelligent, complicated creatures whose fascinating worlds were well worth exploring.

Even though it's a little slim and likely curated by Valerie Taylor in an effort to craft her own image, "Playing with Sharks" is an illuminating film that's well worth the deep dive.

RATING: 3 stars out of 4.

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This story was originally published by Phil Villarreal on Scripps station KGUN in Tucson, Arizona.