Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" won the statue in 2003, but the Oscar-nominated "Le Peuple migrateur" ("Winged Migration") was a strong entry. It's a strange film, though, because if you go into it expecting the usual nature-show primer about animals and their behavior or habitats, you're in for a surprise. "Winged Migration" is more poetry than wildlife lesson, with voiceover narrative and subtitles kept to a bare minimum. Birds migrate. We know that. But in this film we really don't get a detailed scientific explanation of the hows and whys, the way we would have if Marlin Perkins were still around to direct traffic, or if this were a BBC or Animal Planet production. What we do get is a highly visual film that lets the images tell the story. And what lessons are here--the dangers and complications that birds everywhere face because of humanity's ever-widening footprint on the planet--are illustrated quietly but forcefully through the those visual images.
Like "Fly Away Home," the project was made possible because of "imprinting," the technique of taking the eggs of wild migratory species and hatching them so that the first thing the chicks see is the thing they'll follow throughout their brief developmental chickhood and through their first migration. In fact, a nice behind-the-scenes making-of feature shows members of the film crew swimming with the birds, running with them, and getting them used to the engines on the ultralight airplanes that will ultimately be used to lead them on their migratory routes and film them in the process.
All this is astounding enough if you think about it, but then director Jacques Perrin decided to go bigger. Instead of just working with one migratory species, he turned the project into a gargantuan one that involved 450 people, 17 pilots, 14 cinematographers, and more than a dozen different migratory birds whose routes took them through 40 different countries across the globe. Many of these species I've seen for the first time, and the familiar one--the Canada geese that waddle near the drainage canals and flooded fields in our town--we see in unfamiliar territory, against the backdrop of dramatic red sandstone rock formations in Monument Valley, Utah, and resourcefully finding water by an old abandoned vehicle whose radiator hose had apparently leaked--though the impact of this sight is lessened somewhat when we hear Perrin tell on the commentary track that while no special effects were used, shots were "recreated," which is to say, staged. But hey, as Max Jacob once said, "When you get to the point where you cheat for the sake of beauty, you are an artist." And "Winged Migration" is an artistic film.
We may not get a lot of information about the many countries and sites we see along the way, but we do get beautiful, frame-worthy shots every step and every wing-flap of the way. There are stunning aerial and ground shots of our planet that make this more than a film about birds, as we seen footage of Paris and small towns in France, the Adirondacks in New York, a Bald Eagle preserve in Alaska, the Amazon, Antarctica, Arizona, Canada, the Falkland Islands, Hokkaido Japan, Montana, Germany, Glen Canyon National Recreational Area in Utah, the Great Wall of China, Greenland, Idaho, Italy, Nepal, India, Klamath Falls Oregon, Mali, Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya, Nebraska, Netherlands, New York City, North Dakota, Normandy France, Senegal, Mauritania, Argentina, Chile, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Iceland, South Korea, Spain, Libya, and Vietnam. And the birds themselves comprise a list that's equally exhaustive. We see the Greylag Goose, Eurasian Crane, Barnacle Goose, Whooper Swan, Bar-Headed Goose, Red-Crowned Crane, Sandhill Crane, Clark's Grebe, Canada Goose, Red-Breasted Goose, Arctic Tern, and scores of smaller local birds, like the Greater Sage Grouse in Idaho, the Bobolink and Red-Winged Blackbird from the U.S. heartland, or the Emperor Penguin.
The first five minutes of this film are given to artsy shots of landscapes that are compositionally similar though continents away, along with close-ups of similar bird species equally separated by distance. There is no voiceover, only these images and ambient sound, and while the narrator does come in from time to time, I'd venture to guess that the voiceover only comes in every ten minutes or so. Our attention is meant to focus squarely on the beauty of the birds and the landscape of our Earth that sustains and supports such life. Then there are the not-so-subtle juxtapositions of migrating birds and human civilization: shots of geese flying up the Seine in Paris, shots of geese landing in a field by an old woman, migrating birds in New York City, and shots of geese landing in a cooling pond by a factory that's polluted by oil. Don't panic, the director tells us on the commentary track. It's not real oil. This was one of the "recreated" scenes, and it was black milk the animal in which the bird was floundering. But my favorite obviously recreated scene (since a camera crew was onboard, after all) was shots of geese flying over a huge expanse of water and landing on the deck of a destroyer, where they rested and took refuge.
Subtitles briefly flash across the bottom of the screen each time a new migratory species is introduced, and we're told in that subscript how far the species migrates and from where to where. The longest? The Arctic Tern, which journeys 12,500 miles from the Arctic all the way down to the Antarctic. And yes, global warming is mentioned a time or two. But again, make no mistake: this is no Greenpeace or Michael Moore bit of cinematic advocacy. The messages may be here, but they're dwarfed by the artistry of the scenic composition, cinematography, and music. At times, the shots of birds flying in the air can seem a bit repetitive, though, even with different species depicted. The saving grace are the moments we get to spend on the ground with the animals as they show their athleticism or courtship prowess. There are plenty of shots of birds feeding and trying to teach their young to feed, and the bulbous-headed Clark's Grebe in Oregon is particularly entertaining to watch as it scuttles off in distinctive (and yes, artistic) fashion. It could have been called "Winged Ballet." It's beautiful to watch, and a celebration of all things good that the Earth has to offer.
Some of the close-ups are in-your-face, and in 1080p High Definition the colors and detail on the birds faces and beaks looks pretty amazing, though the really sharp shots are in short supply. Atmospheric and weather conditions varied so much that so does the quality of the video. Some scenes are hazy, others appear to have been cleaned up just a bit with DNR, and shots from the ground looking up at the wild blue yonder are particularly prone to graininess of the nervous sort. That said, this is still wildlife photography under primitive conditions--shot from ultralights and small planes, and guerilla photography on the ground. Birds are often the most active during misty periods, and quite a few scenes are hazy. For nature photography, except for a handful of scenes shot under difficult conditions, it looks as good as the Blue Planet or Planet Earth series. "Winged Migration" is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio and transferred to disc using AVC/MPEG-4 technology.
Sony likes Dolby TrueHD 5.1 for their Blu-rays, and the soundtrack, like the video, is solid for a Blu-ray. Plus, language options also include Portuguese and Spanish. Curiously, it's a French film, with Perrin doing the voiceover narration himself, and the English version handled by Philippe Labro, but the original French version isn't included. Go figure. That's too bad, really, because I would have loved to have watched this in the original French (a language that sounds, to my hear, poetic) and read English subtitles. It's a fairly sedate soundtrack except when the bird calls get into screechville, and then you hear the treble handle those high notes effortlessly. Everything sounds clean and pure, though it's not what I'd call a dynamic soundtrack. When we're in the Arctic and a chunk of ice breaks loose or an avalanche begins, then there's resonance in the bass. But for the most part the soundtrack is, like the music, intended to be mellow, with midtones dominating. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, Portuguese, Spanish, Danish, Finnish, Hindi, Norwegian, and Swedish.
There's frankly not a lot here, but what's here is decent. Perrin handles the commentary in English himself, but aside from the revelation about how they shot in "recreation," there aren't really a lot of startling bits of information. He talks mostly about imprinting and how wonderful it was to work with the birds and the crew over so many different locations. Call it average, for a commentary track.
Better, I thought, was "The Making of Winged Migration," which runs just under an hour. Here is where you see the painstaking steps taken to "imprint" the birds, from eggs to final migratory flights. I'm usually not into the music features, but listening to composer Bruno Coulais talk about his choices had interesting moments--especially when some of the songs seemed to stand out rather than blend in. I wanted to hear what he had to say, and while I disagree it's good to have that explanation. Rounding out the bonus features are 24 minutes of interviews with the film's other directors who mostly talk about how no wildlife was harmed during the making of the film, though it sure as heck looked like it. Then there's a photo gallery for birdwatchers to bone up if the details went by too quickly in the film (and they do).
"Winged Migration" is beautifully filmed, but viewers who haven't seen this before should know that it's as much an art film as it is a nature film. If you want hard information, there are better films out there. But for sheer poetry and an 89-minute appreciation of migratory birds? Jacques Perrin's film is a marvel.