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Winged Migration (Jacques Perrin, 2001)


    Watching birds is a pleasant enough pastime for many, and because Winged Migration gives an almost unprecedented look at our flying friends, is suitable for even those only mildly interested in the hobby. By eschewing any heavy narration or talking heads to explain the birdsí behavior, the movie sacrifices some opportunity to educate, but in doing that it also moves closer to being a purely aesthetic experience and one that brings us that much closer to the visceral thrill of flight. Birds donít obsess over the facts of their own existence, so if a film that observes them doesnít either, it almost seems appropriate. With numerous unexplained high-tech gadgets and a bevy of animals trained to not run from the cameramen, the filmmakers here manage to get incredibly close to their subjects, and the results are almost wearying in the awe they provoke.


    There are a few complaints that hamper the experience of viewing Winged Migration. The dominant one is obvious. The film doesnít quite stack up to the superb French insect documentary Microcosmos, with which it shares a producer. Microcosmos has an edge over Winged because the ability of the documentarians to anthropomorphize such wildly inhuman bugs was so unexpected. Since the majority of people have at least a vague idea of what birds do, the sense of discovery found in looking at them through an extreme close-up lens isnít as great as it was with the insects. There are many shots throughout Winged that show us great flocks converging upon famous landmarks, suggesting the filmmakers wanted us to pay attention to the creatures that we largely take for granted, but itís almost impossible to ascribe to them the same sense of wonder, because for almost all of us, the sight of a bird is commonplace. Perhaps more damning is the fundamental conceit of the film, which follows groups of birds on their migratory paths. The approach is hobbled by the fact that as stunning as the in-flight footage of the birds is, it doesnít compare to the stuff we see them do when they land on the ground. The multitude of mini-narratives that Perrinís crew has put together showcase a huge variety of behavior, and while some of them are a bit too forcefully constructed (the scene showing a little chickís imminent demise from a grain thresher or the one featuring a young boy who frees a trapped duck from a pond are two examples) they all serve to highlight the extraordinary nature photography, which is the primary reason that weíre watching anyhow.


* * * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman