Winged Migration

2001, Movie, G, 89 mins


An absolutely breathtaking documentary whose close-up shots of birds in flight are so freakishly intimate that the film is compelled to open with the statement they're not special effects. First and foremost, it's an astonishing act of imaginative restoration, bringing the sheer wondrousness of everyday sights into sharp focus. Who hasn't seen a v-shaped wedge of geese flapping overhead, but who has seen them eye to eye? Second, the film represents a marshalling of personnel and resources, combined with extraordinary feats of skill, daring and organization. Between 1998 to 2001, director Jacques Perrin employed 450 people (including 14 cinematographers and 17 pilots), scattered throughout 40 countries, to follow migrating birds from Europe to Greenland, the Far East to Siberia, the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, Africa to Europe and back again. Using a combination of gliders, helicopters, balloons and cameras with long lenses, Perrin's collaborators got close enough to record the muscles working on a flying crane's back and high enough to see human and natural landmarks — the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, the Russian Steppes and Monument Valley — from a bird's eye perspective. They filmed large birds and small ones, flying hundreds — in some cases thousands — of miles in orderly formations and swarming flocks. The film is a feast of amazing sights and sounds: Birds cackling, snorting, whooping, crowing, clucking, barking, hissing, chirping, squealing, hooting, honking and cawing. Water boiling with submerged pelicans, rockhopper penguins waddling the overland portion of their 620-mile migration, feeding gannets rocketing into the water like arrows, amorous sand grouse puffing out their balloon-like throat pouches and spreading their spikey tail-feathers, terns floating placidly on sheets of arctic ice, ducks literally running on water before achieving enough velocity to become airborne. The minimal narration identifies the birds and their journeys, and occasionally comments on the small dramas that play out before the camera: A duck entangled in a net and another catching a quick mid-ocean nap on the deck of a battleship, a broken-winged chick eaten by sand crabs, a macaw escaping from a makeshift cage. Like the enthralling MICROCOSMOS (1996), which examines the lives of insects, a certain inevitable anthropomorphization arises through the editing. But overall the film rejects CHARLIE, THE LONESOME COUGAR-style sentimentality in favor of letting the birds tell their own eternal yet infinitely varied story of eating, breeding and dying. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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