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A review of Winged Migration

*Winged Migration (G)
Sony Pictures Classics

My film-reviewing partner, John Dicker, calls it nature porn. But hey, the kid's from New York; what does he know? Winged Migration is certainly arousing, but sensuously, not sexually.

Written, directed and produced by French filmmaker Jacques Perrin, Winged Migration follows hundreds of thousands of birds over 40 countries and seven continents as they wing their way to warm-weather nesting grounds and back home each spring and fall. It took Perrin and 450 others, including 17 pilots and 14 cinematographers to film this spectacle, utilizing gliders, ultralight aircraft, hot air balloons and remote controlled model planes to fly alongside the birds. The result is a movie that produces a physical side effect -- viewers leave the theater feeling as if they too have soared on thermals high above the earth.

Birds are exquisite creatures in general -- feathered, muscular, with delicate facial features. The impact of seeing large birds this close up is thrilling. The red-crowned cranes and whooper swans migrating over Hokkaido, Japan, are as beautiful as their names imply. European white storks flying over a quaint Alsatian village, bar-headed geese from India, Canada geese over Monument Valley, Utah -- all are so beautiful you can imagine their heads and wings memorialized on a Japanese screen or a Chinese scroll.

Some are funny and some are daunting in appearance. Two adorable black-necked grebes play peekaboo behind their flyaway neck feathers, looking for all the world like Audrey Hepburn dressed in a feathery pill-box hat, her skinny neck wrapped in a black, flouncy boa. The sage grouse of Idaho with its intricate multi-pointed headdress struts and puffs up its chest, doing a dance that could be the mating ritual of tribal males in remotest Africa.

But Winged Migration isn't all fluff. Backed by a slightly annoying New Age soundtrack, the narration is sparse but pointed. We learn that birds navigate by the sun and stars and that elders fly with their young, teaching them the landmarks to look for along the route. We learn the risks of weather, of being hunted, of fouled water sources, but we are not pounded with a science textbook script.

In a gripping scene over a Western marsh, we watch ducks take to the air, racing away from a sound, then we are at eye level as they fall out of the sky when bullets enter their bodies. Another scene shows a migrating flock stopping for a drink and a dip in water surrounding a smoke-belching manufacturing plant somewhere in Eastern Europe. Perhaps the most startling scene in the film shows a bird with a broken wing stumbling along a beach in Africa. Crabs surround the bird and creep up on it, first a few, then a few dozen, then a hundred or so, eventually engulfing the crippled creature and eating it alive. Nature, the film reminds us, can be cold-blooded.

Cameras follow the birds as they fly up the Seine in Paris, beneath a low bridge, then past the Eiffel Tower. On the other side of the Atlantic, we fly with a flock past the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan, past the Statue of Liberty. Birds swoop over the Great Wall of China and through the ruins of Kosovo. But these shots are merely incidental -- the great monuments and cities are little more than markers along the migration path for these winged travelers.

The best scenes occur in nature -- on the glistening sand dunes of the Sahara, along a river in Alaska, in Antarctica, in the universe of birds. We are graciously allowed to visit, but in Winged Migration, it's a bird's world and a bird's-eye view.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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