Reviews of Winged Migration almost invariably toss out a myriad of numbers: 225 feet of film shot for every foot in the final movie, three years in the making in 40 countries, 450 people involved in the documentary’s creation, 14 cinematographers, 17 pilots, and on and on.
To this, it’s fair to add that the movie has an almost unprecedented 98-percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the Web site compiling reviews of just about every working movie critic, from Roger Ebert to your humble scribe. Out of the 100 reviews so far collected, 98 recommend the film — a pretty impressive landslide. And now, with my review, you can make that 99 out of 101.
* “The whooper swan flies 1,800 miles, from the Far East to the Siberian tundra.”
* “The bar-headed goose flies 1,500 miles, from India to the central Asian steppes.”
* “The Canada goose flies 2,000 miles, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Circle.”
These are a few of the sparse titles that pepper Winged Migration. It’s the sort of information destined to baffle the less ornithologically bent among us, while making others wish to not commit to anything without recourse to an atlas. Yet the titles — like the somewhat monotonous narration by director Jacques Perrin — are indeed sparse, while the narration tells us little more than that birds fly south for the winter and north for the summer. Most of us have known then since the age of 4.
Winged Migration is a very unusual documentary in that it’s less concerned with “educating” us about the migratory habits of birds than it is with initiating us into their mysteries — even if it never really explains them. The movie is a kind of cinematic poem to the wonders of winged things and the miracle of flight, presenting the latter in a way no piece of cinema has previously done. In some ways, the film is called a documentary for the simple reason that there’s no other category to put it in.
Some reservations have been expressed about the film’s veracity — hardly a new problem with the documentary form. When Robert Flaherty, the godfather of the genre, landed on the island of Aran to film Man of Aran in the early 1930s, he was expecting something far more primitive than he found. So rather than accept the reality facing him, he set about recreating the Aran he’d been expecting. And while Man of Aran is certainly not honest, that doesn’t keep it from being one of the most highly regarded documentaries of all time.
Perrin’s film is much less of a cheat than that. Its manipulations are more on a par with the sort you encounter in documentaries on mountain climbing, where you see the leader of the expedition be the “first man” to set foot on a certain peak … and then you pause to wonder just how the camera got to that promontory before him to record this magic moment. Perrin often uses editing to produce similarly suspect moments of frankly Disney-esque drama, as when a group of birds flees in terror from what is almost certainly stock footage of an avalanche having no relation to them. A similar sequence shows a baby bird in a nest in mortal peril from a grass-cutting tractor. Because of the editing, one is — thankfully — hard pressed not to suspect that the film crew moved our feathered friend out of harm’s way rather than let the tiny creature be unceremoniously cut down.
These are not major problems, though they’re so completely unnecessary as to seem greater sins to me than they probably actually are. As a rule, Winged Migration is content to let its invariably striking images and intriguing “cast” speak for themselves. There’s the “Clark’s grebe,” for example — judging by its feathery do, it’s apparently the bird world’s Ish Kabibble, though it seems prone to indulging in some kind of Esther Williams water ballet. My personal favorite is the implicit drama of a group of migratory birds stopping off at a very frightening industrial complex in southeastern Europe, skillfully skirting the path of gigantic industrial machinery that would strike terror in a human being. Perrin wisely leaves the footage to the viewer to interpret, without adding any editorial flim-flam.
There are a few other points that may not ring quite true. Surely, it’s significant that scenes of duck hunters blasting their prey out of the skies are identified as being in North America, while a scene with a little boy saving a bird from being mired in the residue of pollution is clearly taking place in France. Similarly, the New Age-y soundtrack by Bruno Coulais (who did the score for the French version of Harrison’s Flowers) is unlikely to be to everyone’s taste; it’s sometimes a little grating, often sounding like a bad collaboration between Peter Gabriel and Enya.
However, all this takes a back seat to the absolutely stunning visuals that are the heart and soul of this remarkable work, which qualifies as one of the few must-see films of the year.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke