Mark Reviews Movies


3  Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jacques Perrin

MPAA Rating: 

Running Time: 1:25

Release Date: 4/18/03

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Review by Mark Dujsik

If you like birds, you'll more than likely enjoy Winged Migration. I don't like birds, and I think Winged Migration is a remarkable film. I don't trust birds; don't ask me why. Maybe it's their beady eyes or my experience watching The Birds as a child or those geese I encountered once in park as an even younger child. Whatever it is, I don't like birds, but I can appreciate observing them from a distance. And I greatly admire the lengths to which the filmmakers have gone to bring their passion for the creature to the screen. It took four years (three of them for actual filming) for director Jacques Perrin and his crew of over 450 people to track multiple species of birds across the globe and follow them on their instinctive odyssey for survival. As a documentation on the flight patterns and behavior of our winged friends, the film is about as comprehensive as they come. Perrin and his team of fourteen cinematographers get up close and personal to an unprecedented extent, allowing us to see even the most miniscule movement. Winged Migration is much more than that, though. If one of the aims of art is to enhance one's appreciation of the beauty of nature, then the film succeeds as art as well.

Make no mistake: the film is about birds. Perrin starts the film by making us feel at home and establishing the incredible proximity that he has achieved in studying his subjects as we watch a songbird weave through trees as the camera follows closely behind. One of the very few human players helps a goose who has been left behind return to his fellow travelers, but before then we've been treated to the first of many intimate shots of flight. Immediately, one wonders, how did they do that? Anyone who has approached a bird or a flock of birds knows how quick they are to fly off. There was a period of training for the birds to get them accustomed to the presence of human beings, and from there, it was simply a matter of using a wide assortment of remote controlled and manual aircraft. As we travel with them, Perrin keeps the information to a minimum, maintaining our focus on the imagery. There is an accompanying narration, but it is thankfully sparse. The film would work just as well if not better without it, but any more would have resulted in a completely different film. Simple, unobtrusive subtitles give us most of the important details (species, flight distance, path of travel, location, etc.).

This simplicity lets us observe natural behavior, including some weird habits. One species of cranes does a sort of dance. It's almost ballet-like. Well, until one of them falls over. It's strange how choreographed some of these things seem, but I guess it's simply nature's rhythm. Another type of bird dive bombs into the water to hunt, which leads to a hypnotic shot of a large group of them doing so. Groups are involved in a pair of other sequences. One shows the entire screen gradually filling up with startled birds; the other follows a swarm that looks like locusts from a distance set against a field at sunset. There's a quick shot of what happens to all that water pelicans ingest, and the film even makes room for penguins, which can't fly but are still technically winged. During the less peculiar moments, our eyes begin to notice the background. Perrin gives us stunning and picturesque imagery of some of our architectural and technological marvels and nature's own splendor. A shot of the Great Wall of China from far above and a flight through Paris stand out, but there are even less obvious moments. Autumnal trees provide a colorful backdrop for flying, and a cliff provides a jumping off point for a fledgling.

It isn't all pretty pictures, though, and throughout the film, there's a sublime and subtle statement against man's interference with nature. The freedom of flight is suddenly interrupted by hunting, and the score abruptly ends as a gun is fired and a goose falls struggling from the sky. One shot somehow makes a duck decoy in the water scary. Agricultural machinery invades the nest of a hatchling.  In another scene, a company rests in an industrial plant, avoiding many obstacles but finding danger in an oily mess. More often than not, nature takes care of itself in much more graceful ways. There's something strangely elegant in the way a flock of predator birds swipe at other birds in the air. Even a relatively grotesque scene with crabs chasing down an injured bird carries along with it a struggle to survive on both ends. There's nothing refined about hunting; nature has its own way. Perrin achieves a sense of nature's endurance. Birds have been doing this for as long as they have existed. A shot of the World Trade Center reminds us that all of our technological and architectural wonders are, in the big picture, minor and, in the long course of things, fleeting.

It's nature that endures and will surely continue to do so long after we've shuffled off this mortal coil, and it's nature the film celebrates. Perrin tells us at the beginning of the film that no special effects were used in showing the flight of birds, and as we watch all of these wonderful sights, we realize just how often special effects artists get it wrong. Some things may never be truthfully recreated by special effects, and I hope it stays that way.

Copyright 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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