Incidental Drama En Route To the Arctic Circle; Jacques Perrin’s Aviary Opus “Winged Migration”
by Steve Erickson
Given America’s profusion of cable channels, any nature documentary has a lot of competition. One made for the big screen has to distinguish itself from numerous PBS and Discovery Channel programs covering the same territory. An aviary follow-up to the 1996 etymological documentary “Microcosmos” (produced by “Winged Migration” co-director Jacques Perrin), “Winged Migration” undoubtedly has a built-in audience. Since that audience may be more likely to stay home and watch TV or go out and experience nature for themselves, it has to offer something special. Perrin and co-directors Jacques Cluzaud and Michel Debats shot “Winged Migration” on 35mm film, apparently with a luxurious budget. They used five crews of more than 450 people, including 17 pilots and 14 cinematographers working in 40 countries across every continent.
The directors favor long shots of bird flocks soaring across beautiful landscapes — everywhere from the Arctic Circle to American and African desserts — and wide-angle shots in which one or two birds are relatively close to the camera. These images are spectacular…for about five minutes. After that, Perrin’s repetition of similar scenes quickly grows monotonous, reducing these landscapes to postcard vistas.
“Winged Migration” traces the life of migrating birds over the course of a year, as they travel around the world looking for more hospitable climates. Most follow the same north-south axis year in and year out. The film begins in the spring, reaching a midpoint at the Arctic Circle, where many birds begin raising their young during its brief summer. When fall rolls around, it follows the same patterns in reverse, as birds travel southward to escape the cold.
There’s plenty of incidental drama in “Winged Migration.” Two cranes play a percussion duet on each other’s beaks. Birds on their way from India to Central Asia narrowly avoid being crushed by an avalanche. Geese race across a pond as though they were water-skiing.
Not surprisingly, humanity and its creations are responsible for much of this drama. “Thanks” to a hunter, a peaceful flight scene turns into a snuff film. A tractor threatens to crush tiny quails underfoot, although we never learn their fate. In a genuinely suspenseful sequence, a beautiful parrot, trapped in a cage on a boat traveling down the Amazon, pries open its prison door and flies away.
“Winged Migration” doesn’t anthropomorphize its subjects, but it “ennobles” them with an invasive soundtrack. Perrin could have done without music altogether, simply letting the bird’s squawks and other natural sounds dominate the sound design. Instead, he accompanies all the long shots of birds in flight with a grating soundtrack. Never content to show majestic landscapes, he must underline their majesty with choral vocals and sweeping strings.
One can’t fault “Winged Migration” for lacking a spirit of old-fashioned adventure. A longtime producer and actor, Perrin worked on a documentary about monkeys, “The Monkey People,” as well as “Microcosmos.” To get some seemingly impossible camera angles and positions, the crews used seven different types of aircraft. As with Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams” and Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” (albeit for much different reasons), a documentary on the making of “Winged Migration” might be at least as interesting as the film itself.
While “Winged Migration” benefits from taking its subjects on their own terms, it doesn’t offer much real insight into bird life. (Notably, the on-screen text restricts itself to describing birds’ migratory patterns.) The voice-over hints at subjects like “community” — birds that stick together during the long migratory periods — and the temporary “families” formed during the brief break from migration. What might these concepts mean for birds? Do they mean anything outside of our own culture? Sticking to a narrow flight plan, “Winged Migration” throws these concepts out there with no follow-up. As an exercise in virtual bird watching it can’t be beat, but you might get more insight without Perrin as a human interloper. For all its accomplished cinematography, it’s ultimately less interesting than the average Discovery Channel nature program.