by Ed Symkus

Neither just a kid's film nor just an adult film, Winged Migration, the Oscar-nominated documentary about the search for food by birds all over the world, will make any viewer's jaws drop. Survival is the name of the game here. Although migration is still quite a mystery, the film explains that, in the fall, as natural food supplies run out for many birds, they take off for where there's more. When supplies later start to dwindle in their winter homes, they head back to where they came from, and where supplies are building up again in the spring.

That's about as scientific and explanatory as the film gets, as told by writer-director Jacques Perrin in his minimal, heavily accented narration. There are subtitles that pop up from time to time that introduce and explain specific birds -- how far they fly each year, and from where to where. But most of the information is presented visually. And the visuals are what makes this film soar.

Photographed over a three-year period by five teams, and filmed in South America, Canada, Asia, Greenland, India, Africa, the United States, and Europe, the project has the feeling of being a travelogue. But this wasn't a matter of simply pointing a camera at flocks of birds flying overhead in far-off places. Using state-of-the-art camera and aircraft technology, as well as a few tricks of the trade, the filmmakers (one of whom was Scott Johnson of Asotin, Wash. -- see sidebar) were able to get just below, just above, and right behind all of these flapping, gliding, amazing birds.

The tricks include getting to know some of these feathered animals from the time they are chicks. Many of them actually grew up around the filmmakers and the equipment, which got them accustomed to these people and things, in turn making them comfortable enough so that the filmmakers could literally fly with the birds.

Although on a couple of occasions there's some repetition and revisiting of the same birds in the film's stunning hour and a half, Winged Migration never drags. There's even a bit of subtle, wordless storytelling involving a French woman who waits for her favorite birds to return each year -- with treats in her hands -- and a young boy who manages to free a bird who gets caught in a net.

And there's quite a bit of drama, mostly because the fight for survival involves much more than looking for food. There are both natural predators and man-made disasters to deal with. One helpless young bird is seen about to be attacked by a mass of land crabs. Another is caught in some industrial sludge. Both look to be doomed, and in some sort of wordless political statement, the film makes it appear that they are. What the filmmakers don't tell you is that, in reality, both birds were saved at the last moment. Other birds were not so lucky. And in a controversial sequence -- be prepared when it's announced that some ducks are "flying south over North America" -- there are some unseen hunters who shoot a few of them out of the sky. It's not a bloody, exploitative scene, but it is shocking.

All of that is very brief, though. This is a film that concentrates much more on beauty and grace than anything else. Some of the birds fly so low, their reflections can be seen on the water, their shadows on the land. Some of them float on the wind currents while others dive-bomb into the sea. Some of them, natural comedians, spend a lot of time just hopping up and down. At one point, the film addresses how completing these migratory treks has got to be absolutely exhausting. So it's terrific fun to see how some of them face that problem; in one case, a few of the birds, mid-ocean, land on a welcome-looking Navy ship, then curl up for a nap.

Because there's so little narration, much of the film's mood depends on its sound. Some of it is completely non-existent, with absolute silence -- in other sections, the only sound is the mad flapping of wings. The well-intentioned decision to insert some music into the project, however, doesn't work out as well as it might have. Much of it is pretty, New Age-y stuff, but too often it all wells up to an uncomfortable loudness, switches to annoying chant-like vocals or gets far too percussive. The movie's best aural sections are simply composed of ambient sound.

But, again, this is a far stronger visual experience. Anyone watching it will be reluctant to go back home and watch films about birds on a small TV screen. Unless, of course, those films are Brewster McCloud or The Birds.

Publication date: 08/28/03

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