When was the last time you saw a movie where the audience cheered for characters who accomplished amazing feats without ever exposing a mid-rift or flexing a dramatic muscle, and never once relied upon special effects to gild their achievements? Most of us would be hard-pressed to come up with a handful of examples, much less a single movie where those characters are birds. In this 85 minute feast for the eyes, you are treated to breathtaking footage and the adventures of thousands of avian protagonists as they face adversity on their travels across the globe. “Winged Migration” is as pretty and light as a feather on the wind; never stopping long enough to get mired down in detail, while always keeping your imagination on the wing.
The movie, as the name would suggest, is about migrations although a fair share of the footage is of fuzzy nestlings and quirky mating dances. The camera spends so much time in the air that you feel wind-blown and tired from the work necessary in flying across continents and oceans. When several geese hitch a ride on a ship’s deck during a storm in the middle of a sea, the audience breaths a collective sigh of relief and it is, perhaps, our connection to the birds that is the most interesting achievement of the movie. That we are flesh and they are fowl is irrelevant as they pursue lives as fragile and mesmerizing as any caught on film.
For ornithologists or those who watch an inordinate amount of animal shows, this movie might seem oddly naked, devoid as it is of any real data or facts. Instead of David Attenborough’s breathy insights to avian habits, “Winged Migration” lets the birds honk, squawk, trill and sing for themselves. We are not told why the Clark’s Grebe pops up on top of the water to dash around like a feathered water skier or how the Greater Sage Grouse makes those popping sounds with its inflated chest. Director Jacques Perrin, whose documentary “Microcosmos” (1996) swept the audience into the world of insects, again prefers beautifully filmed vignettes of life with minimal human interjections.
Lovely as it is, there are two aspects of this movie that do not fly; the soundtrack and the sporadic commentary by Perrin. The second-rate New Age soundtrack makes you long for those moments where the only music is beating wings and the raucous honks of our feathered friends. Perrin, who sounds like a bored Jacques Cousteau, provides no insights into the birds when he does feel moved to speak, but plenty of penny ante philosophy which does not do justice to the heroic journeys on-screen.
The film’s direction seems without reason at times, drifting between continents and species without that instinctual compass so vaunted in its subjects. However, there were no complaints from an audience willing to glide on its journey from the African White Pelican to Antarctica’s Rock-hopper Penguins to the flamboyant characters of an Amazon jungle. If you dream of flying to far-off lands but do not want to dwell on reason or details, then “Winged Migration” might be the gust of wind to take you there.
Parents should know that the birds face peril on land and on the wing. Several are shot, a couple of them are caged, and some are preyed upon by other birds. A Red-Breasted Goose flounders in an oil refinery’s effluent and is left behind by the flock in one scene while in another it is implied that a penguin chick is eaten by a scavenger. Young children might be disturbed by the inability of an injured Tern to escape from attacking crabs.
Families who see this movie might wish to count each scene where a bird is helped or hindered by humans or something human-built. Is the help or hindrance intended? What could your family do that might make an impact on the lives of birds?
Families who enjoy this movie should see “Microcosmos” (1996), Perrin’s loving look at the insect world. Those looking for adding detail and depth to their bird knowledge might be interested in the ten part series, “The Life of Birds” (1998), which is narrated by David Attenborough and aired on PBS in 1999. For those looking for story and adventure featuring geese on the wing, “Fly Away Home” (1996) is a lovely little movie.