directed by Jacques Perrin
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover The birds are coming, my friends, and you best take shelter before they bore you into a stupor. Not even Hitchcock himself made avian life seem as pervasive a threat as Jacques Perrin does in Winged Migration--though instead of being an active physical menace, it simply has the power to take your money and drive you to sleep or insanity. Alas, despite some super cinematography and generally good intentions, this record of birds sitting around and taking off gets very old very fast, for want of anything beyond an exclamation of, "Look at the pretty birdie!" There is, of course, an audience (nature enthusiasts without an intellectual bent, for starters, as well as those who would mistake impersonal, "professional" photography for art) that will not only gobble every shallow morsel of this film, but also think it a cultural advance.
At first, Winged Migration is entertaining in a shallow, IMAX-movie sort of way. Perrin gets the poetic reverie started pretty quickly, providing a cloying opener in which a young boy examines some water fowl before they make the big flight down south; cheesy, yes, but man, does it look good. There's a feeling of crisp air and wide-open space as the camera contemplates the birds' mission to fly thousands of miles twice-yearly, and there's no denying that the wide array of species make attractive camera subjects. And their ritual is shrouded in just enough mystery to inspire low levels of awe and wonder, forcing us to ponder the method in the madness of flying thousands of miles and back again. As it looks good and isn't particularly taxing, we settle in for a blissfully attractive 90 minutes.
Unfortunately, Perrin doesn't have any other tricks up his sleeve. He's so gaga over the whole 'winged migration' hook that he doesn't give us anything else to consider--he simply shows us species after species take off and fly, take off and fly, take off and fly. After the fifth or sixth passing of birds into the air--with helpful subtitles showing us the exact distance they must fly--one would generally feel entitled to a little variety. But the film is unrelenting in its determination to catalogue the various persuasions of bird as they make the big trip north or south, and apparently we, the audience, must bow to its monomaniacal obsession. As a result, Winged Migration becomes painfully monotonous, and our admiration of its skin-deep beauty gives way to resentment of its essential emptiness.
In fact, there's less hard information here on the why and how of avian life than the average public-television nature show. For all of narrator Philippe Labro's incredulous voice-over's remarks about the mystery of the migration, there's precious little theory as to what makes them do it and how they go about it: we wind up knowing nothing about these birds except that they would make a great NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC spread. And while it touches (briefly) on the threat posed by humankind to many of these species, it is scrupulously careful not to go into details and burden us with data. Of course, if Perrin provided any facts, the film would lack that Spielbergian sense of wonder that is its raison d'être, and the audience that made hits out of Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi wouldn't go whoooo quite so readily. Perrin steers clear of science for the sake of cornball mysticism, resulting in a film that rots the teeth as much as it dulls the mind. Originally published: May 30, 2003.