Film Reviews: Wednesday, July 2, 2003
Winged Migration\r\nNarrated and directed by Jacques Perrin. Written by Stéphane Durand and Jacques Perrin. Rated G.
I’m Like a Bird

Winged Migration is a feather in Jacques Perrin’s cap.


Winged Migration is a documentary about birds. OK, you say, I can get the same thing on the Discovery Channel without paying $8. You’d be mistaken.

I direct your attention to a shot in the middle of the film, in which a flock of barnacle geese fly into the teeth of a blizzard. Most nature documentaries are tied to places where a camera can be held steady, which limits them to observing birds when they’re nesting or doing something on the ground, not while they’re in full flight. The shot of the barnacle geese was taken by a camera attached to a model glider that flew alongside the birds, a few inches away from them. That means the movie puts you close enough to see the lead bird in the flock shivering in the cold and narrowing its eyes to keep out the blowing snow. It’s a perspective that even the most devoted birdwatchers have probably never had.

The movie is full of such things. French director Jacques Perrin has a real aptitude for conceiving of his animal subjects as intelligent beings and showing us their mental processes — he did the same thing in his 1996 insect film Microcosmos. Watching Canadian geese peeking their heads over a sand dune or African white pelicans diving in unison, you can see these creatures as more than birdbrains. While the breathtaking flight footage is the movie’s calling card, Perrin also shows us the harder aspects of the birds’ lives. Birds separated from the flock are abandoned without any qualms, and an Arctic tern with a broken wing meets a particularly horrible death at the hands of a bunch of sand crabs.

The film makes minimal use of story or narration. (Just as well, as the latter tends toward New Age-y poeticism: “Heaven is ephemeral. It will only last a season. Once again [the birds] must take to the sky in their endless search for food.”) It leaves you with nothing to do except possibly pick an aspect of the film to concentrate on. There’s the often spectacular scenery, which ranges from Arizona’s Monument Valley to the glaciers of Iceland. There’s the birds’ voices, from the wooden clatter of the white storks’ bills to the goat-like braying of the puffins. There’s the myriad visual strategies that Perrin’s crews use to film the birds, from helicopter shots to a camera plummeting down the side of a cliff, through the birds flying around it. There’s the vast number of things that the birds’ bodies can do: Rockhopper penguins skip through the Antarctic waters like dolphins, while the northern gannets, with their yellow heads and blue eyes, hover over the ocean and suddenly transform themselves into missiles to penetrate the water. And there’s just general weirdness, with Clark’s grebes running across the surface of a lake and greater sage grouses plumping up their feathers and banging sacs in their neck together to produce a gobbling sound. The birds are a funky enough crowd to give Pixar Animation ideas for their next movie, but Perrin achieves a quite un-Pixar-like tone in Winged Migration. With its unhurried pace and quiet lyricism, the film is an oasis of calm and serenity that the summer movie scene can definitely use.

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