If "Spellbound" was the 2003 documentary that showed how you can thrill an audience and inspire cheers without having to spend millions on CGI special effects and elaborate costuming and sets, "Winged Migration" evoked awe sans X-Men, Spidey, or Neo battling three dozen Agent Smiths.

Is it possible to fill 98 minutes with flying birds and not bore an audience? Skeptics should remember that it's been done with two guys yakking over dinner ("My Dinner With Andre") and even one guy sitting in a chair and talking at the camera armed with nothing more than a glass of water (Spalding Gray's various filmed monologues). In contrast, this film has a cast of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and they come in an astonishing array of colors and shapes.

Veteran French actor Jacques Perrin and a huge team of technicians labored nearly four years to create this paean to the beauty and character of our feathered friends, at least the ones that do a lot of traveling. Ninety-eight minutes of birds flying (and eating, and dancing, and floundering, and squabbling, and dying) were indeed quite sufficient to make audiences laugh, applaud, and gasp with wonder and delight.

One thing that helps keep the film interesting is the variety of terrains as well as familiar landmarks from around the world. Cameras take us to the Himalayas, Saharan dunes, Greenland glaciers, paddies in China, a gorgeous desert oasis, grim and filthy industrial districts of Eastern Europe, and Antarctica. We see birds pass the Statue of Liberty at dusk, Mont-St-Michel, the World Trade Center towers, and the Great Wall of China. Geese flap under a bridge across the Seine, hardly giving a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty a glance, with the Eiffel Tower in the distance. We're treated to shots of a total solar and partial lunar eclipse.

But the most amazing sights are simply the birds doing their thing. With the help of balloons, gliders, helicopters, and planes, Perrin's film crews managed to get a bird's-eye view of geese on the wing, pelicans skimming the surf, a blue macaw swooping inches above the chocolate-covered Peruvian Amazon. The camera floats right alongside them; you can look the birds in the eye as they float or flap along, sometimes for an amazingly long 10 to 12 seconds at a time. How did they do that, you repeatedly ask yourself.

If you've seen this team's earlier mini-epic about insects, "Microscosmos," you'll know they can wring dramatic tension, guffaws, and pathos out of the simplest natural situations. For tension, the camera looks closely at a nesting grouse, then lifts to show three huge combines bearing down on it. Audiences cheered and applauded as a parrot caged on an Amazon craft with monkeys and toucans opens the door to its prison and nonchalantly flees. Hunters' rifles blow geese out of the sky, a wounded bird gets chased and mobbed by a fleet of crabs on an African beach, and a gorgeous Red-Breasted Goose gets mired in the muck at an industrial site and is abandoned by his flock.

Perrin also fashions slyly narrative-like elements that give the movie a subtle roundedness. It opens and closes at a little country pond in France, from which Greylag Geese depart at the beginning and to which they arrive at the end, supposedly the following spring. A little orange-breasted robin pops out of a barn in the snow at the start, reappears with a new batch of chicks at the end. A little boy races through the grass to see the birds at both ends of the film (although I'm skeptical that the goose he freed from a net at the start returns a year later with the same bit of netting on his foot -- he seemed to be tugging at it pretty determinedly early on).

There are marvelous transitions: after we've watched a lone bald eagle in the Grand Canyon for a moment or two, honking from offstage introduces the Canada Geese, who look strikingly out of place in the red desert. A moment later, the rumble of hoofbeats picks up, and the geese make way for a herd of wild horses being driven by cowboys.

The human presence is severely diminished. People are not entirely absent (you glimpse the boy, the hunters, an old woman feeding cranes) but they've obviously been elided out of some scenes. There's absolutely no sign of an operator on the Amazonian boat with the caged animals. Canada Geese land on a warship in a driving storm at sea, and we get several shots of them walking the deck, then curling up for a nap, with nary a sign of a mammalian biped. The effect is to make it seem as if birds are the dominant life form on Earth. (Would that it were so!)

Many shots are unforgettable: the reflections of Barnacle Geese repeatedly flash and disappear as they fly over flats with pools of water; Bar-Headed Geese sit calmly on a mountain in Nepal, looking remarkably calm in a driving blizzard, tuck their heads under wings, and then take off as the rumble of an avalanche builds; Red-Crowned Cranes strut, leap, dance, and trip on Hokkaido; geese fly above glaciers like cold blue granite; geese fly through a driving snowstorm with the camera traveling alongside them at eye and wing level; snow geese are shot from above as they fly over a flaming red maple forest in New York state; the telescope portal of an astronomical observatory opens just as a flock of geese flies across the widening slot; a pelican's lower beak pokes the bag of his neighbor's mouth all out of shape; dark African birds hold out their wings like an umbrella to shade the water they're walking in, apparently to cut the glare and see the fish they're after; a bird wrestles with a large fish skewered by his lower bill, tossing it up like a pizza to catch it in his mouth; a tiny bird steps off a high cliff ledge and plummets straight down to the ocean like the bomb in "Pearl Harbor."

A few words about the film's weaknesses, techniques, and sleights of hand. First, the narration (apparently done originally by Perrin himself, but U.S. prints credit Phillipe Labro, who reads with a heavy French accent) is largely superfluous. It strains for the poetic, but becomes increasingly pointless (though increasingly rare, fortunately) as the film progresses. Secondly, the musical score by Bruno Coulais is extremely uneven: it ranges from low chanting punctuated by drums to a boy choir crooning gibberish, from brooding vibes to a plaintive oboe. (And is that a typewriter tacketing beneath the water dance of the Clarke's Grebes in Oregon?) Bookend songs by Nick Cave and Robert Wyatt are even less appropriate.

Some question whether "Winged Migration" is even a documentary. Perrin has not been shy in interviews about discussing the film's tricks, and the making-of footage on the DVD is even more honest. Although the film announces there are "no special effects" in the filming of the birds, that does not mean everything you see is on the level. First, there are three or four CGI sequences in which flights of birds are shown crossing continents and oceans above the curved globe as if seen from a satellite. Those are obviously fake and used as transitions.

More subtle are some of the dramatic peaks. Perrin has admitted they did not let the crabs eat the bird, but pulled it to safety and substituted a dead fish. The Red-Breasted Goose brought down by industrial pollution is a staged scene: the film crew placed its "actor" in milk mixed with vegetable coloring to look like oil. They had an opportunity to film at a shipping accident that left oil on the French coast, but Perrin chose to avoid the difficulties of shooting under those conditions.

The filmmakers may have used blue screen and other juxtapositions to place pelicans above a lightning storm, geese flying in the background as wild horses stampede, and other precious scenes. It takes patience to get a great nature shot, but sometimes the filmmakers didn't wait. As the DVD explains, they flew some birds down to Africa by plane for certain sequences. Many of the close-flying shots depended on trained birds: geese that had been raised to follow ultralights -- even exposed to human voices and camera sounds while still in their eggs!

Does all of this make "Winged Migration" something other than a documentary? I say not. All the things that happen on screen really do happen, somewhere, every day. There are deaths in the film that are clearly not staged: the birds shot by hunters, obviously, but also raptors knocking smaller prey out of the sky and into the sea, and a butt-ugly scavenger bird luring a king penguin chick away from its parents and gobbling it. Like most of the occasional violence in this film, the worst occurs offscreen; we get only a closeup of the scavenger's face glistening with juices afterward.

Though it has its thrilling and hilarious moments, "Winged Migration" is mostly calm and soothing. Yet it never puts you to sleep. We get a unique sense of the grandeur and courage of the lives of birds. In life, we mostly see them flying in the distance or placidly perched somewhere, so they seem incidental and decorative.

In this film they own the planet.

David Loftus


Many years ago, one of Loftus's favorite authors, John Fowles, said that if he had to choose between humans and birds getting to stay on the planet, he wasn't sure the birds would suffer. Loftus has never desired to be a bird, or dreamed he was one. But someday he'd love to have a walk-in aviary in his home stocked with finches and lovebirds. David Loftus, Writer - AllWatchers.com



Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats - Directors
Jacques Perrin, Stéphane Durand, Francis Roux, Valentine Perrin (idea) - Writers
Christophe Barratier, Jacques Perrin - Producers
Jean de Trégomain - Executive Producer
Olli Barbé, Michel Benjamin, Sylvie Carcedo-Dreujou, Laurent Charbonnier, Luc Drion, Laurent Fleutot, Philippe Garguil, Dominique Gentil, Bernard Lutic, Thierry Machado, Stéphane Martin, Fabrice Moindrot, Ernst Sasse, Michel Terrasse, Thierry Thomas - Cinematographers
Bruno Coulais - Original Score
Phillippe Labro - Narration

2001, 98 minutes


2002 Best Editing, César Awards (France)
2003 Best Cinematography, Boston Society of Film Critics Awards
2003 Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing in a Foreign Feature, Motion Picture Sound Editors (USA)


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