Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s Pets Week here at The A.V. Club, so we’re recommending movies about the sometimes sweet, sometimes weird, always meaningful relationship between people and animals.
Fly Away Home (1996)
Carroll Ballard made his feature-directing debut with 1979’s The Black Stallion, an adaptation of Walter Farley’s coming-of-age novel, converted by Ballard and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel into a lovely, stirring explication of mankind’s place in the natural world. Ballard and Deschanel then reunited for 1996’s Fly Away Home, another adaption that finds a personal angle on someone else’s story. Fly Away Home is based on Canadian inventor and naturalist Bill Lishman’s memoir Father Goose: One Man, A Gaggle Of Geese, And Their Real Life Incredible Journey South, a book about how he trained a flock of birds to migrate behind one of his ultralight aircrafts. But there’s no character in the movie called “Bill Lishman.” Instead, screenwriters Robert Rodat and Vince McKewin work a lot of the biographical and engineering details from Father Goose into an original story that has multiple layers and meanings, while still remaining accessible and family friendly.
Anna Paquin stars as Amy Alden, a world-traveling 13-year-old whose life is upended when her mother dies in a car accident. Sent to live in Canada with her oddball artist dad Thomas (Jeff Daniels) and his girlfriend (Dana Delany), Amy remains grief-stricken and sullen until she finds a nest of abandoned goose eggs. She first helps them hatch and then—with Thomas’ guidance—guides them to a North Carolina wildlife refuge. The connection is clear: Here’s a young woman without a mother, who develops new family bonds by empathizing with a gaggle of lost geese.
Ballard and company don’t shy away from the melodrama in Fly Away Home. Semi-villainous hunters, game wardens, and real estate developers pop up periodically, and there are multiple scenes geared toward reducing viewers to a teary puddle. But mostly the movie quietly and gracefully explores how these two very different kinds of animals—human and bird—learn from each other how to adapt and survive.
As with The Black Stallion (and Ballard’s excellent 1983 man-and-nature adventure Never Cry Wolf, for that matter), Fly Away Home deals with weighty themes without hitting them too hard. Instead, the film is appealingly fleet. Deschanel’s stunning aerial photography conveys the awe of flight via long shots of unbroken motion across eye-catching scenery, providing a visceral sensation that’s thrilling in and of itself. Ballard accomplishes a lot this way, by provoking the audience to feel something, putting them in the heroine’s shoes. We watch her as she watches these animals, and as she figures out who she’s meant to be by learning how to take care of them.
Availability: Fly Away Home is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.