"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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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
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!)
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
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
this film they own the planet.
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
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
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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