WINGED MIGRATION (Peuple migrateur, Le)

(director: Jacques Cluzaud/Michel Debats/Jacques Perrin; screenwriters: Stéphane Durand/Jacques Perrin; cinematographers: Michael Benjamin, Sylvie Carcedo-Dreujou, Laurent Charbonnier, Luc Drion, Laurent Fleutot, Philippe Garguil, Dominique Gentil, Bernard Lutic, Thierry Machado, Stéphane Martin, Fabrice Moindrot, Ernest Sasse, Michael Terrasse, Thierry Thomas; editor: Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte; music: Bruno Coulais; cast: Jacques Perrin (Narrator); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: G; producer: Christophe Barratier/Jacques Perrin; Sony Pictures Classics; 2001)

“Winged Migration on the large screen works as a grand substitute for catching the annual Audubon Society nature walk in the park.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Respected producer and in recent times nature filmmaker Jacques Perrin (”Microcosmos”/”Himalaya“) comes up with a kind of Disney-like travelogue documentary that is strictly for the birds. I mean nothing derogatory by that, as this is a stunningly beautiful technical accomplishment of photographing close up a wide variety of migrating birds in their endless search for food and survival. It’s also a very moving experience to see these birds in action. The graceful and beautiful birds such as snow geese, sandhill cranes, sage grouse, Clark’s grebes, white storks, curlews and terns, travel from over a thousand to 10,000 miles on their annual treks from the southern to the northern hemisphere and back again.

The documentary explores the mystery of birds in flight, as they must migrate when their breeding territory becomes uninhabitable. There were also shots of bald eagles and penguins in migration, and a wounded bird attacked on the sand by a score of crabs. There were also great location shots that range from the Eiffel Tower and Monument Valley to the far reaches of the Arctic and the Amazon. The film makes it clear it did not use special effects, but it did stage certain shots (a few birds stuck in oil spills). It took over three years to film from 1998-2001, as more than 5 crews of 450 people and 14 cinematographers were on hand to follow the bird migration through forty countries and each of the seven continents. The crews managed to follow alongside them on planes, gliders, helicopters, and balloons, and used various innovative camerawork techniques to allow the photographers to film from above, below and in front of the birds. It’s an amazing accomplishment and, as far as I’m concerned, is the defining film about birds to date. The only other bird film I enjoyed more, was Hitchcock’s skewered Freudian view in “The Birds.”

If you ever had the slightest curiosity about our fine-feathered friends and just want to simply view them without being inundated with a factual lecture, then you should run over to a theater where this elegant film has landed and treat yourself to a lofty experience. Winged Migration on the large screen works as a grand substitute for catching the annual Audubon Society nature walk in the park.

The learning lesson comes in easy to take doses. Perrin is a friendly narrator who dollops out easy to absorb info such as: “For 80 million years birds have ruled the skies, seas and Earth.” They navigate by their instincts, as they have a built-in compass. The migrations are often costly in loss of life, which is why they prefer traveling in large groups as weather and predators cause problems. In recent times, mankind brings into play the dangers of pollution and hunters, who shoot them for sport.

The film has a new-age score by Bruno Coulais of loud choral music and pop songs about the birds that did nothing for me musically or spiritually. The sparse dialogue was good mainly because it was sparse and therefore every word seemed to matter more than it should have, even though I would have preferred even less dialogue or at least a less flowery one. But these are minor quibbles with a film that is unforgettable in its beautiful visuals and does a good job transferring its feelings of awe for the birds.

Winged Migration Poster