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'Migration' gives wings to the audience

The breathtaking documentary uses technology and human daring to attain a perspective on the lives of birds as lofty as it is exhilarating.

May 02, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

For 80 million years, "Winged Migration" grandly informs, "birds have ruled the skies, seas and Earth." Now, however, they have some company. Us.

To fly with those creatures has been a human dream, and this breathtaking documentary uses new technology and old-fashioned daring and grit to allow us to share their space. Not just to hover over them in airplanes but to feel the exhilaration of side-by-side companionship. At its best, "Winged Migration" is a marvel, and if that seems like a gee-whiz word, that's because this film has a lot to be gee-whiz about.

Though it is partly a nature film in the spirit of old-school Walt Disney true-life adventures that featured Ida the Offbeat Eagle and Greta the Misfit Greyhound, "Migration" is best understood as a kind of travelogue, taking us to worlds we have not seen and places we can't get to on our own. With every country under the sun now available for adventure travel, it takes a journey like this to make us sit up and take notice.

One of the nominees for this year's best documentary Oscar (it lost to "Bowling for Columbine"), "Migration" was directed and narrated by Jacques Perrin, the French filmmaker who similarly explored the insect world in "Microcosmos."

Perrin, however, hardly did it alone. For this look at the migration patterns of dozens of bird species, he used hundreds of people, including 17 pilots and 14 cinematographers. They were broken down into five teams that followed the birds into 40 countries, venturing from Iceland and Alaska to Senegal and Mali, with stops in Peru, Kosovo, the Falkland Islands and lots of places in between.

Perrin's cameras were placed in all manner of flying craft, including helicopters and balloons, as well as on land-bound robots that were able to infiltrate large bird gatherings. The most exciting footage apparently came from fragile but effective ultralight motorized aircraft that gave the filmmakers an almost 360-degree field of vision.

As dramatized in Carroll Ballard's "Fly Away Home," these machines have been used to lead whooping cranes on migration routes, and the filmmakers employed similar imprinting techniques to get young birds to treat the aircraft as adult members of their species. These are not the safest of machines, however. As Perrin told an interviewer, "If I have a good friend, I don't give him this aircraft."

Though it did not use special effects, "Winged Migration" has staged some shots. A shot of a bird caught in an oil slick was done on a set, and softhearted viewers will be happy to know that, appearances to the contrary, a wounded bird attacked by crabs was rescued off-camera at the last minute. Interesting as all this is to know after the fact, details will be far from most minds as "Winged Migration" unfolds. With minimal narration, the film introduces us to dozens of species.

We hear them squawking, squeaking, chattering and honking and are told via type on screen how far their migratory journey is.

The red-crowned crane is the slacker of the bunch with a mere 600-mile trip, while the Stakhanovite is the rugged arctic tern, which flies 12,500 miles, from the Arctic to Antarctica, twice a year.

To be next to these birds as they are flying is frankly mesmerizing. The strength needed to keep flapping those wings is impressively apparent, as is the extreme elegance of their flight patterns, graceful beyond even what we imagined.

Of course it doesn't hurt that these birds are photographed mostly flying over extremely picturesque locales: China's Great Wall, a pristine African sand dune, the vastness of Monument Valley, the bright red and gold of fall foliage in a New York state maple forest.

Ironically, one of the most memorable sequences is the least classically beautiful, as red-breasted geese are shown wandering through a European oil refinery like calmly purposeful businessmen.

It also helps that Perrin and company have chosen truly interesting-looking birds to focus on. Whether they show us the cool and elegant white stork, the unusually bouncy Clark's grebe or a sage grouse looking as strange as a creature from "Star Wars," these are creatures fully deserving of their fleeting moments of fame.

There are, inevitably, things to quibble about in "Winged Migration." The narration, though spare, has more of a reverent air than is good for it, and the soundtrack is regrettably of the Euro-pop persuasion.

But once wings start beating, objections melt away. Fly away home indeed.


`Winged Migration'

MPAA rating: G

Times guidelines: Scenes of birds menaced by and apparently eaten by predators

Released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Jacques Perrin. Producers Christophe Barratier, Jacques Perrin. Executive producer Jean De Tregomain. Screenplay Stephane Durand, Jacques Perrin. Cinematographers Michael Benjamin, Sylvie Carcedo-Dreujou, Laurent Charbonnier, Luc Drion, Laurent Fleutot, Philippe Garguil, Dominique Gentil, Bernard Lutic, Thierry Machado, Stephane Martin, Fabrice Moindrot, Ernest Sasse, Michael Terrasse, Thierry Thomas. Editor Marie-Josephe Yoyotte. Production design Regis Nicolino. Running time: 85 minutes.

In limited release.

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