Let me start off by saying I am not in the employ of Sony Pictures Classics, which is releasing the French film Winged Migration in American theaters this week. But I am sympathetic to their plight. They have a genuinely epic and enthralling film on their hands, but there is no getting around the fact that it's a documentary about migrating birds. To most folks that's the kind of torture they left behind in public school.
But I really must insist that you see this movie. Personally, I don't love birds any more or less than the next guy. I don't necessarily love birds more than fish, reptiles or mammals either. But birds are what producer/director Jacques Perrin decided to spend four years following to the ends of the Earth, and frankly to not appreciate his effort is to not appreciate life. In a world where Too Much Information has depleted our natural sense of wonder, Winged Migration sits us down in a movie theater and lets our mind soar. And if Sony Pictures Classics wants to put that in an advertising blurb, so be it.
Jacques Perrin pulled off a similar, if exponentially smaller trick a few years ago on Microcosmos, in which he zoomed in on a patch of French countryside and found it teeming with the silent comedies, tragedies and daily pathos of the insect community. But with Winged Migration, Perrin leaves that, and every other nature documentary, in the dirt. And documentary probably isn't the most accurate word anyway. While there is some sparse narration, a few facts to be learned and possibly an agenda, Winged Migration is the work of a passionate cinematographer content to let stunning images speak for themselves. Along with inspiring our wonder of nature, Perrin invites a lot of technological marveling, as in..."how in the hell did they get that shot?" We fly wing to wing with Canadian Geese from snowcapped mountains, to Monument Valley, to the canyons of Manhattan. We sit in the nest as a Bald Eagle majestically lands on top of us and stares us in the eye. We plummet down an icy precipice into artic waters with a young tern making his first unsuccessful attempt at flight. This is not the work of a zoom lens. This is participatory filmmaking and itís hard to overstate the visceral effect. Perrin put together five teams to chronicle each major bird migration pattern covering 40 countries and all seven continents. He enlisted 14 cinematographers, 17 pilots, ultralight aircraft, gliders, balloons, helicopters and specially designed remote controlled flying cameras. Even armed with this knowledge, I still watched Winged Migration and wondered...."how in the hell did they get that shot?"
The only hitch in this remarkable journey is a wildly uneven soundtrack, featuring some truly cringe-worthy ethereal French ballads. But Winged Migration manages to soar above even the mock gravity. It's an escape in the very best tradition of motion pictures. And you may never look at a Great Crested Grebe the same way.
© 2003 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 5/14/03
France/Italy/Germany/Spain/Switzerland - 2001