Winged Migration

April, 2003, Documentary

I can just picture how one of Hollywood's legendary moguls would have reacted to the notion of this film had it been pitched in the old studio days; "You wanna make a movie about birds?  STARRING BIRDS? Get outta here with that nonsense, you schmuck!" Thank heavens France's Jacques Perrin, (who brought the remarkable world of bugs to human attention in Microcosmos) was able to seek his financial support from a host of European backers with something other than a complete fixation on the bottom line; he and his co-directors Jacques Cluzaud and Michel Debats spent four years photographing dozens of species of migratory birds through their travels as they roamed across 40 countries and all seven continents. Using a crew of 450 people, (including 17 pilots and 14 different cinematographers) Perrin & Co. have turned the commonplace experience of bird watching into an astounding phenomenon, converting an experience we find it easy to ignore into a riveting study of entire species. See this remarkable film and you'll never take birds for granted again.

Employing "ultralights" (aircraft which resemble hand gliders with little outboard motors), hot-air balloons, zeppelins and remote controlled gliders, an evocative original score by Bruno Coulais and the often haunting calls of the birds themselves, these filmmakers succeed in transporting earthbound audiences into a world even the most experienced jetsetter has never before experienced. The crews follow the semi-annual migrations of water-fowl as they first move from breeding grounds in the Artic Circle and Antarctica to their summer feeding homes around the globe and then back again, repeating a process as timeless as it is remarkable. With a minimum of narration and subtitles, these aerodynamic creatures are pictured in furious, beautiful flight, stalking their food, nesting with their young and staking out breeding turf in battles with their fellows. From Pelican to Albatross, Crane to Goose, in vivid colors atop spindly legs that often seem incapable of carrying the bodies they support, these always handsome and occasionally awkward creatures amuse, delight and inspire with such offhand skill a human observer can only sigh in baffled appreciation; "how do they do that?" The camera work defies description; (at times conveying a menace that Hitchcock could only have dreamed of in The Birds) often in close-ups which convey such a sense of stillness the viewer swears he's looking at a James Audubon painting. 

There is no false emotion here, no easy sentimentality; the risks faced, (human and natural) are presented with matter-of-fact directness, and despite some lapses in the accompanying score (which occasionally rangers from cloying to ponderous) the inhabitants of this exotic world are simply permitted to explain themselves by their own, time-tested Darwinian strategies for survival. Whether defending themselves from natural predators or cramming needed food down the throats of their insistent offspring, the cycle of life displayed here never strikes a false note. Never has nature's complexity-and beauty-been so evocatively and breathtakingly presented. 

Anyone who's ever taken a hike in the mountains, marveled at a flock of birds on the Great Plains at sunset, or simply noticed them careening over an urban landscape, (and there are stunning strafing runs down the East River and up the Seine presented here) will be enthralled by this remarkable demonstration of handsomely presented avian complexity.

 The verdict? For city slickers to committed naturalists, occasional moviegoers to cinema buffs, this film is an absolute must. 

Jake's Takes comments powered by Disqus