Winged Migration
directed by Jacques Cluzaud,
Michel Debats, Jacques Perrin
(Columbia TriStar, 2001)

I've never quite understood the avid dedication of many bird-watchers, their willingness to hike and peer and strain their ears for a glimpse of something darting overhead.

Never, that is, until watching the stunning Winged Migration.

It's a pretty straightforward documentary with some jaw-dropping acrobatics and some visual images of birds, simple and exotic, winging their way north, then south again, in migrations that span hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. Even at its most repetitive, it's an astonishing sight.

Winged Migration is from the same producer, Jacques Perrin, who brought us Microcosmos, a startingly up-close look at life on the tiny scale of insects. This odyssey shows us what bird migrations are, in all their danger, beauty and exhausting effort.

Five teams spent more than four years spanning the globe, from pole to pole, over landscape both instantly recognizable (Paris, Monument Valley) to rivers, deserts and fields known only to the most intrepid birder. By glider and helicopter, remote-controlled models, balloons, Delta Wings and other camera-toting devices, the crews were able to get in the midst of flocks as they took off, as they soared, as they came under attack.

There are the Canada geese as well as European white storks, puffins and a host of other birds whose migratory patterns have been millions of years in the making and refining. And everything's presented in a cut-and-dried way that lets the pictures speak for themselves: a voiceover, identifying the birds, and then a musical accompaniment as we watch them hurtle through the air in long, unbroken camera shots.

It's hypnotic, really, and hard to remember that it's not all a set-up, that no computer tricks were used -- although it now seems at least one scene, in which a bird gets stuck in industrial sludge, was a set-up (the bird was freed).

Winged Migration was a hit with the critics, nominated for Best Featured Documentary at the Oscars (losing to Bowling for Columbine), and a huge hit -- for a documentary -- at the box office as well: According to The Denver Post, Winged Migration has earned $5 million more than that J.Lo and Ben Affleck indulgence, Gigli.

And it's a hit with audiences, too. Anything that can give us pause with its beauty deserves a long, long look.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 1 May 2004

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