Winged Migration (Le peuple migrateur)

In the pink.

In the pink.

(2001) Documentary (Sony Classics) Pierre Labro (voice) and a whole buncha birds. Directed by Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud and Michel Debats

There is something about a bird in flight. Given wing, it captures our imagination, symbolizing our ability to break free the bonds of Earth and achieve more than we thought we could. Flight is freedom in our imagination and yet birds are trapped by it. They migrate, sometimes thousands of miles. They can’t help it. They don’t have a choice in the matter. Their genetic disposition is such that their instincts override reason. When the time comes, they head South…or North depending on the time of year and the species of bird.

This particular documentary was nominated for an Oscar (losing to Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine which some critics thought an injustice but I can kind of see) and deservedly so. The French documentarians who had previously taken us into the world of insects in Microcosmos had to innovate on the fly (no pun intended) as they figured out ingenious ways to get cameras close enough to migrating birds, using lightweight camera-mounted drones and other sorts of aircraft that would allow them to follow the flocks without disrupting them.

The results are spectacular. We are in the midst of thousands of migrating birds all over the world, from the deserts to the mountains, the shoreline to the city. We see birds of every variety – grouses, puffins, swallows, geese and so on. We see them in their elements, the formations that they adopt in flight and the sometimes stupendous odds they face in getting from point A to point B.

They are attacked by predators both natural (i.e. birds of prey, a broken-winged young tern facing off against scary crabs) and manmade (duck hunters blasting away at birds in flight). They must sometimes fly for days without rest, food or water across the ocean or mountain or desolate desert. We are literally given a birds-eye view of their travel, an annual event for them but still amazing for us to watch them make it unerringly to places you and I couldn’t find without a GPS.

The narration by Pierre Labro (although Perrin does it on the American version I believe) is low-key and occasionally explains what you can see for yourself. I much prefer narration that gives perspective, some kind of background that gives the viewing an understanding of what they’re seeing rather than a description. I can see that the birds are flying in formation. Why do they fly that way? How do they learn that skill?

But this isn’t a nature documentary in the traditional sense. I don’t think the filmmakers intended to educate their audience on ornithology. No, I think the point of this movie was to send the viewer in flight right along with the birds, to create an experience that will allow them to soar spiritually and forget for a short while the troubles of us earthbound mortals.

I sometimes grouse about the IMAX and 3D versions of classic films that make the occasional rounds in the multiplexes. I would much rather see an IMAX version of this someday – now that would really be spectacular! Da Queen and I were fortunate enough to see it on its theatrical run and we have seen it since on DVD. There really is no comparison although there are compensations to seeing it at home – my late dog Peanut was fascinated by the bird cries and watched the screen with an interest and cocked head he rarely took at the television screen. Perhaps that’s part of why I am so fond of this film – it is one of my fondest memories with my dog – but having seen it again recently I can say that this is also a wonderful, beautifully shot film that will fill you up with wonder from the time the show starts until the final credits. If you need to let off some steam and forget about the world for awhile, this is a good place to go.

WHY RENT THIS: Comes as close to giving the audience a sense of flight as any film is likely to. Fascinating and beautiful.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The narration is sometimes obvious and unnecessary; would have liked to have gotten more information about why birds do what they do.

FAMILY VALUES:  While generally safe for all audiences, there is one scene that the very sensitive might have a hard time with.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers attempted to film emperor penguins but weather conditions prohibited it. The next year, a different crew would capture the elusive emperors on March of the Penguins.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: While making-of featurettes are generally pretty standard on most home video releases, the one here is noteworthy because it explores in-depth the challenges both technical and human in capturing these images of birds in flight.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $32.3M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Earth

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: 12 Years a Slave

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