In 2002, French producer Jacques Perrin had a modest international hit with Winged Migration, a beautifully photographed film about the astonishing journey birds make each year from one habitat to another. Buoyed by contemplative music, minimal-but-well-placed narration, and non-enhanced close-ups of birds in flight, Winged Migration followed the old Disney “true-life adventure” mold in subtle ways, crafting the migratory patterns of birds into mini-narratives marked by perilous encounters with pollution and hunters. Perrin, whose Microcosmos took an intimate look at the world of insects, prefers immersion to explication with his nature films, but like most movies about the animal kingdom, Winged Migration couldn’t resist the temptation to ascribe some human traits to non-human behavior. And audiences responded enthusiastically.
Still, soaking up the nuances of the avian lifestyle does lose some of its wonder after 90 minutes, even in Winged Migration’s handsome-looking new Blu-ray edition. What’s impressive about the movie today isn’t Perrin and company’s artificial attempts to fashion their footage into a story, but the subtle revelations that emerge from just staring at birds as they do their thing. Watching a flocking bird flap in formation, or seeing a seabird hover and dive, it’s easy to be caught up in the sheer effort it takes for birds to do what they do. And it’s also easy to appreciate the way Winged Migration subtly frames the birds against famous landmarks around the world. The movie reminds us of the extent to which birds occupy the background of our lives, even when we don’t notice them.
The Winged Migration Blu-ray arrives at the same time as another good movie about birds in transit: the 1996 family film Fly Away Home, by director Carroll Ballard and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. Though inspired by the story of Bill Lishman—a Canadian inventor and naturalist who trained a flock of geese to follow him in an ultralight aircraft—Fly Away Home adds a story about parenting and maturation that enriches Deschanel’s stunning aerial photography. Anna Paquin plays a preteen whose globe-hopping mother dies in a car accident, forcing her to live with her eccentric artist dad, Jeff Daniels. When Paquin finds a nest of abandoned goose eggs, she displaces her grief into becoming a surrogate mother to the flock, eventually working with Daniels to guide the hatched birds to a wildlife refuge in North Carolina.
There are villains in Fly Away Home—hunters, land developers, and game wardens—but Ballard makes only a halfhearted, awkward stab at demonizing them. Instead, he emphasizes the differences between man and beast: how animals are born with an innate sense of what to do to survive, while humans seem to wander about in a fog of confusion, waiting for guidance. Yet all creatures, when necessary, adapt. Ballard and Deschanel fill their movie with long shots of unbroken motion across eye-catching scenery, exploiting the awe of flight as much as Winged Migration would do half a decade later. The difference is that while Winged Migration asks the audience to empathize with birds, Fly Away Home asks us to take a closer look at the people who love them, and to understand what gives their lives meaning.
Key features: Sleepy commentary tracks on both are counterbalanced by superbly detailed how-we-did-its.