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Winged Migration

Bird's-eye view


French director Jacques Perrin, whose previous outing -- the extreme close-up of the insect world Microcosmos -- elevated the travails of the dung beetle to mythic proportions, now casts his lens into the lives of migratory birds and declares: Birds gotta fly. North to south, and back again. Tens of thousands of miles, year after year, across mountains, oceans and cities. Won't you join them? Though we have conquered the sky with airplanes, we've never been privy to the world birds make in the air -- until now.

This is no documentary. Winged Migration is a very loose essay: Birds migrate, and this in itself is beautiful, mysterious, fascinating and therefore worthy of film. Perrin and his crew spent four years following migrating birds worldwide: Fourteen cinematographers, 17 pilots and all manner of aircraft resulted in seemingly impossible footage. Imagine flying nose-to-beak with geese over the Nepalese mountains, swooping and turning as effortlessly as a ... well, as a bird.

It is key that Perrin has chosen to focus on birds that are attractive or have some inherent nobility. (In one scene, some plain greasy pigeons wander by and you can imagine the director screaming, "Get those mugs out of my shot!") There's astonishing visual poetry, such as when thousands of birds move as one, a cloud of birds flashing from black to white as they turn; other species display a remarkable aptitude for synchronized dancing.

Some sequences are amusing (virtually any shot of those hapless penguins) and others are strangely heartwarming -- an emotion perhaps evoked by the New Age-y score, or maybe just the undeniable determination of these birds. Their bodies held in perfect aerodynamic alignment, they flap, flap, flap ever onward.

Mostly, Perrin's cameras follow birds through huge swaths of pristine scenery with a few detours into urban areas. Here, our busy minds can't help but impose the sketchiest of narratives: As birds fly over Eastern European industrial pits of hell, I imagine they're going as fast as they can to get past. And was I supposed to feel that weird jolt when I saw geese flying across New York Harbor heading straight for the World Trade Center towers?

It's a testament to the level of vicariousness this film engenders that I, who am mostly annoyed by birds in real life, left the theater feeling somewhat exhausted. All that flying! But ultimately this is a low-impact movie ideally suited for the dog days of summer. No metaphors to ferret out, no convoluted plot twists to puzzle through, no over-paid actors to fret over -- Winged Migration just washes comfortably over you as beautifully and easily as a bird flying overhead. ***

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