Winged Migration
Le Peuple Migrateur
review by Nicholas Schager, 18 April 2003

With its majestic vistas of swooping birds traveling thousands of miles for their annual migrations, Jacques Perrin’s Winged Migration is one of the few films I’ve ever seen that is as suitable for my cats’ viewing pleasure as for my own. A nature documentary that will primarily appeal to those who find the planet’s feathered inhabitants an endlessly fascinating subject for study, Perrin’s documentary is filled with euphoric moments that transport us into the heart of the migrating birds’ journey, placing us alongside them as fellow voyagers on their regular fall and spring journeys for food and safety. But be warned: with only scant narration and a few meager subtitles providing basic information on the birds we’re watching, the film doggedly follows its airborne travelers without ever giving us much insight into their particular habits or characteristics. It is a film both picturesque and blatantly empty.

Perrin employed over 450 people (including seventeen pilots and fourteen cinematographers) for three years to capture the footage found in Winged Migration. Yet for all their hard work, what they’ve ultimately compiled is gorgeous but context-less footage of birds in transit. Perrin and his co-directors Jacques Cluzaud and Michel Debats used a wide array of aircraft – some created specifically for this film – in order to literally become part of the migrating swarm, and there are numerous close-up aerial shots of the birds that are breathtaking in their clarity and proximity. Whether it’s the Eurasian Crane slicing through the air while making its 2,500 mile trek from Spain to Borneo or the Bar Headed Goose leaving India for the Far East steppes, the film allows us to glide alongside these regal creatures, darting in and out of their ranks with seemingly effortless grace.

Perrin occasionally interjects banal and overblown comments over the film’s visual splendor, chiming in with pronouncements such as “Their migration is a fight for life” that undermine the power of his film’s images. Given Perrin’s penchant for making his scripted lines sound either melodramatic or prosaic, and the infrequency of informative tidbits, the film can’t maintain any sense of momentum or consistency. The film jumps back and forth between various flocks at different points in their migration, and after a while the material blends together into one stunning but lifeless collage. The impressive variety of birds on display (filmed on all seven continents) are given no distinction by Perrin’s reverential gaze; many are seen in all-too-brief snippets that merely highlight a peculiar characteristic – for example, the Albatross’ penchant for staying in the air over the ocean for amazing lengths of time – and most others are presented with none of the vital background information necessary to fully convey the epic nature of their journeys. When we see a flock of birds reaching New York City’s shores after their fall migration, the World Trade Center towers glistening in the morning sunlight, the image is at once heartbreaking and totally false, a carefully programmed moment designed to make us feel as though the film is about more than random visual brilliance. Similarly, an army of King Penguins stretching as far as the camera’s eye can see is indisputably striking. Not being told anything about these flight-impaired creatures, however, is a nearly unforgivable deficiency.

If Winged Migration is mainly a National-Geographic special distilled to abstract proportions, there are enough awe-inspiring moments to provide momentary exhilaration. Watching the Red Breasted Goose – a bullet-like bird with red and black feathers that, in their design, recall an imposing fighter jet – zip through a smoke-spewing Eastern European refinery, only to have one of its flock wind up mired in industrial waste, is just one of many entrancing moments provided by the film; the problem is that once this scene is over, we never glimpse these awesome birds again. Brain and Mr. Bungle – our family’s avid and enthusiastic bird-watching felines – might find this material mesmerizing, but I suspect that most human moviegoers demand more depth from their nature programs than this superficial documentary is willing to provide.

Directed by:
Jacques Cluzaud
Michel Debats
Jacques Perrin

Written by:
Stéphane Durand
Jacques Perrin
Valentine Perrin
Francis Roux

G - General Audiences.
All ages admitted.






  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.