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Winged Migration (G)
Sony Pictures Classics
Official Site
Director: Jacques Perrin
Producers: Christophe Barratier, Jacques Perrin
Written by: Stéphane Durand, Jacques Perrin, Jean Dorst, Guy Jarry, Francis Roux
Cast: Jacques Perrin (narrator), thousands and thousands of birds

Rating: out of 5

If you think you won’t like Winged Migration, then you probably won’t. The movie is exactly what it looks like—an hour and a half of flying birds. If that’s not your bag, I’m sure The Hulk is playing on 79 screens within 10 minutes of your house.

But for those who are fans of director Jacques Perrin’s earlier insect documentary Microcosmos, Winged Migration is still a mixed bag. Perrin’s latest project is about birds. Specifically, it concerns avian migration—the yearly process of moving to more hospitable climes for the winter, only to return again for the warmer months. Every year millions of birds routinely fly thousands of miles, always returning to the same place from which they came. The subject is certainly a fascinating one, worthy of the talents of such an innovative nature documentarian as Perrin.

And the filmmakers have risen to the technical challenge of filming birds in flight. Five teams spent three years following the winged creatures all over the planet. Like in Microcosmos, the cinematography here is as amazing as that which is being filmed. Camera operators flew in helicopters, gliders, and balloons to get the right shots, and developed any number of new technologies specifically for the film, including a remote-controlled flying camera. The results are breathtaking—the film beautifully highlights the majesty of flight, the wonder of the landscape, and the incredible precision of the birds themselves.

But natural beauty and technical wizardry are not enough. Perrin clearly eschews the “Wild Kingdom” approach to nature documentaries, where a narrator accompanies the viewer and chimes in every few seconds to tell us what’s happening. Instead, he wants the birds’ flight to speak for itself. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. There are too many important questions about migration that cannot be answered by watching flying birds. “How the hell do they know where they’re going?” “How many of them are there?” And the one that chapped my ass through the whole movie: “How could there possibly be more food in the Arctic Circle than wherever it is these birds are coming from?” These are just a few of the many fairly obvious questions that require the film somehow to step away from the birds themselves from time to time.

Perrin appears to be aware of these difficulties, as there is far more prompting of the viewer than there was in Microcosmos. Winged Migration features a New Age soundtrack that sets the mood—the birds are in danger, the birds are being playful, the birds are majestically soaring above the clouds, etc. Perrin himself pops in with a voiceover every 15 minutes or so, and every new species of bird is introduced with a subtitle stating its name, how far it migrates, and where it lives. By and large, though, very little happens. Even in documentaries—even in nature documentaries—if nothing happens on-screen, the viewer will have a difficult time identifying with and maintaining an interest in the proceedings. Microcosmos featured a plucky dung beetle manifesting his can-do spirit in rolling a turd up a hill, two slugs making love, and a host of other activities that make sense to humans. Though Winged Migration includes a couple of deviations from its central theme—birds stop every once in a while to lay eggs, feed themselves, or fall to some predator or human hunter—by and large, it is a showcase of flying birds. If it were half as long, it would be an incredible IMAX movie. As a feature, it’s beautiful to look at, but could be more interesting to watch.

—Mike O’Connor


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