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WINGED MIGRATION

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Lots of birds!
Director: Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats
Audio: 5.1 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi(!)
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: Commentary, "Making-of" documentary, music featurette, photo gallery, interviews, trailers
Length: 89 minutes
Release Date: November 18, 2003

"Heaven is ephemeral. It will only last a season."

Film ****

I am no ornithologist.  To me, all birds look alike, and one quack or honk sounds just like the next one.  Yet, there can be no denying the grace and beauty of the images and sounds of birds captured in the remarkable film Le Peuple Migrateur (Winged Migration, 2001).  An assemblage of footage accrued from over 15,000 hours of flight time, this film is a gorgeous travelogue of multiple species of migrating birds, from swans to geese to even bald eagles and much more.

In actuality, Winged Migration is neither pure documentary nor fictional film but rather a blend of both forms.  Like its forebears, the Disney True-Life nature documentaries of the 1950's, this film uses actual documentary footage mixed with staged scenes to create the ambience of a natural story, one that has endured since the dawn of human existence.  Brief captions appear occasionally to describe the various migration routes of these birds, and occasional musical interludes or narratives appear, but otherwise, the film is entirely devoted to the breath-taking sights these marvelous creatures in flight.

For four years, five crews consisting of  seventeen pilots and fourteen cinematographers traversed seven continents to film these birds.  They visited dozens of nations of the world, including Peru, India, Senegal, France, Vietnam, United States, Iceland, and others.  Using everything from gliders, ultra-lite planes, helicopters, and balloons, these filmmakers endured everything from the withering heat of Monument Valley and African riverbanks, the wintry wastelands of the frozen tundras, and even the dangers of erupting geysers or collapsing ice glaciers to capture these images and tell a story of the passage of one year, with its bi-annual migrations, in this cycle of avian life.

Described as "a symphony about nature," Winged Migration contains many incredible images, with the camera virtually adjacent to the birds as they fly.  We'll see skein of geese and volery of whooper swans in flight.  We'll witness the spectacular dives of dozens of northern gannets into the waters of the northern Atlantic in search of fish.  There is something calming, relaxing, and occasionally comical about all these singularly minded birds, even when they are not in flight.  Take, for instance, the amusing water dance of Clarke's grebe upon the lakes of Oregon; these birds can literally scamper around on top of water, not just swim!  Furthermore, the bizarre greater sage grouse of Idaho, with its prickly, truly other-worldly appearance, is a bird that must be seen to be believed!

The film reveals many extraordinary facts.  The arctic tern, for instance, routinely undertakes a tremendous 12,500-mile voyage from the Arctic to the Antarctic.  Equally as impressive is the albatross, which is as long-lived as humans; with its enormous wingspan of twelve feet, this large bird can spend years at sea without ever seeing land.

The first third of Winged Migration focuses on a convergence of birds towards the arctic regions of the world.  The middle portion of the film observes the subpolar regions of the world after the arrivals of the birds.  We'll see Atlantic puffins, with their cute, colorful beaks, and the rockhopper penguins, with their watery hopscotch style of swimming.  There are plenty of fuzzy baby hatchlings, too, which are often just too cute for words.  One of the funniest shots follows a baby bird taking a Hail Mary leap off a sea cliff...only to flutter like a collection of wayward feathers into the seawater hundreds of feet below.  If at first you don't succeed, try try again!

After this middle section observing the birds' mating rituals and the miracle of new birth, the film concludes with a chronicle of the long voyage home.  There are several scenes concerning the risks of these flights.  More often than not, mankind represents the most dangerous predator.  The film depicts an encounter of the migrating birds with hunters, who are only seen in ominous silhouettes.  Other birds become disoriented in the eerie post-modern sprawl of decay and despair as they land for a restive in an industry manufacturing park.  The tone is strangely frightening, particularly in light of the previous scenes of beautiful natural landscapes.  Not all encounters with man are filled with danger.  There is a comical scene in which barnacle geese, spotting a French warship at sea, use it like a rest station on a turnpike.

Obviously, some of the film's scenes are choreographed or staged - for instance, the escape of a truly clever Amazonian hyacinth macaw from its cage.  But everything is in service of creating the proper atmosphere for the film, which manages to enthrall without being manipulative.

In today's films, multimillion dollar special effects CGI extravaganzas make for nice eye candy, but in the end, there is simply no substitute for the beauty and awe of the natural world about us.  Endless shots and scenes in Winged Migration put many a Hollywood blockbuster to shame, and this film helps to remind us of all the creatures with whom we share this small world.  Sometimes, in our technological mindset and modernized comforts, we tend to forget that there are many wonders awaiting us just outside out doorways, and all that is needed is the will or desire to see them.  Winged Migration is a celebration of this life.

Video ****

It pretty much goes without saying that the cinematography in Winged Migration is absolutely mind-blowing.  Aside from the gorgeous landscapes, the film features numerous sequences in which the filmmakers were able to approach almost within inches of the birds in flight!  The technique behind this seemingly impossible feat is revealed in the bonus features, but it still makes for very impressive cinema.

Happily, the transfer is crystal-clear and translates every last detail of these magnificent creatures in motion.  Winged Migration is easily one of the most beautiful documentaries available on DVD.

Audio ****

From the roars of avalanches to the collapse of ice floes to numerous avian cries all around, Winged Migration places the audience in a truly immersive aural environment.  It is one of the most impressive "you-are-there" experiences available in any documentary.

The documentary features occasional narration in English.  However, the narrator's thick French accent renders many of his comments difficult to comprehend.  Fortunately, the film does not rely on narration (which is mostly inconsequential anyway) for its impact.

The score, by Bruno Coulais, works quite well in the context of the film, although the infrequent songs, though pretty, are somewhat intrusive and seem to disrupt the rhythm of the natural sounds.  The songs are alternately in English and French.

Features ****

"Taking off from a muddy field, they look like a pair of waddling albatrosses."

The bonus features for Winged Migration are presented mostly in French.  English subtitles are provided whenever necessary.

Among the features presented in English (well, quasi-English), is a fun and informative commentary track from co-director Jacques Perrin.  His thick French accent makes for a truly surreal listening experience.  Perrin seems to have invented his own special rules for English syntax and grammar, so while the main thrust of his remarks is generally somewhat decipherable, the method of delivery is quite often hilariously bizarre, if unintentionally so.  There  is no denying, however, Perrin's great enthusiasm for the film!

Fortunately, many of Perrin's main points are also re-iterated in the excellent "Making-of" documentary (52 min.), one of the best I've seen in a while.  This documentary is also presented in English and is utterly fascinating, almost as compelling as the actual film itself.  It follows filming from the first day of shooting on the remote shores of Iceland, July 1998 until its concluding shots.  More significantly, the documentary concentrates on a detailed discussion of imprinting, a technique that ultimately allowed the filmmakers to capture the incredibly close-up images of the flight of the geese, ducks, swans, pelicans, storks, and cranes seen in the film.  On a side note, the great family film Fly Away Home also offers a good demonstration of how this technique of imprinting works.

The documentary discusses how species were determined for imprinting, how migration routes were chosen, and which locations of the most ideal bird gatherings around the world were selected.  It also describes some of the inherent dangers encountered during filming, such as gales and hurricanes but more ominously lost or sick birds and crashing planes (in total, there were seven non-fatal crashes during filming).

Creating the Music (17 min) offers the filmmakers and the composer Bruno Coulais an opportunity to talk about how the film's music and songs were woven into the fabric of the film.  Coulais describes how he carefully matched the texture of his score to illustrate the essence of bird cries, the beating of wings, or even the flight of the birds themselves.  There are also frequent clips of the recording sessions.  Among the singers are former punk rocker Nick Cave, believe it or not!  All in all, this featurette is certainly worth a look, even if Coulais occasionally gets carried away with his exaltations.

About the Film is a 10-minute interview segment in French with the filmmakers.  It reveals more information about the lengthy imprinting period from pre-birth throughout the birds' early development, allowing them to become accustomed to the presence of heavy machinery (such as aircrafts) and the acceptance of a human caretaker as a surrogate parent.  All in all, there were seven different caretakers for the pelican, Canadian geese, barnacle geese, graylag geese, Eurasian cranes, and snow geese imprinted for this film.

Further Insights (14 min.) offers explanations of various scenes in the movie.  It is a great supplement to Jacques Perrin's commentary for the film.  In this segment, we will learn how cuckoo hatchlings are raised and the different flying styles for the birds (the "motive" flyers prefer a reverse-V formation for better air penetration, while the gliders use atmospheric thermal pillars to fly effortlessly).  There is also a discussion about the effect of hunters and pollution upon the birds' migrations.  Some sad scenes, such as one of a giant petrel killing a baby penguin or a tern with a broken wing being chased by crabs, are acknowledged in this section, too.

The photo gallery (13 min.) offers over three dozen still photos of the myriad birds seen in the film.  It is a mobile gallery with camera shots that pan the photographs with music and a filmmaker commentary in the background.  Some of these photographs are quite beautiful.  Overall, this is a wonderful presentation, making one wish that more photo galleries were presented in this manner.

Lastly, there are trailers for Winged Migration and Cirque du Soleil Varekai.

Summary:

A tranquil and soothing film, this is the perfect DVD to calm one's nerves and to soothe the soul after a long and weary day.  Filled with gorgeous images and awe-inspiring landscapes, Winged Migration is a celebration of endurance and life itself.