Part of the reason I was disappointed in March of the Penguins is that I was holding it to very high standards. Back in June 2003, I had seen a far superior and more expansive bird documentary. So, here’s what I wrote about Winged Migration at the time. I’m chagrined to discover, once again, my lack of imagination. The review that follows hinges on the same painting/canvas metaphor as my Penguins review. Still, if it gets one more person to rent the movie, I’m a happy man.
2003. Directed by Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud, and Michel Debats
Somewhat overlong, Winged Migration is still a masterpiece of captured movement and landscape photography. The title says it all—the camera follows flocks of migrated birds for a year. The birds cut into the frame like impressionist paintstrokes. In fact, the entire movie feels like a hallucinatory, revelatory painting. Sometimes, the paintings are as intimate and specific as a Van Gogh portrait, or as—when a gigantic flock takes to the open sky at once, filling the frame with a riot of motion—dizzying and abstract as a Jackson Pollock canvas.
Mostly, though, Jacques Perrin apes Rembrandt and Brueghel, with the dramatic use of natural light, the crispness and clarity of the landscapes in which the birds interact, and the dynamic compositions that his film team somehow achieves. And then there’s the colors—washes of gold and brown, sharp whites and grays, and tender greens.
Winged Migration does eventually wear on you, and, towards the end, I groaned every time our silky-voiced French narrator introduced yet another species. Still, you grow to love these birds deeply, and so many of these creatures are so weird that the film reminds you of the startling oddness of life. When a gunshot punctuates the still, steady film and kills a duck, it hurts. A doomed, crippled bird trying to outrun scuttling crabs on the beach evokes horror. A flock of geese rising to evade the cold gives you a feeling a raw triumph. The movie manages to convey a full narrative—or, really, a series of narratives—mostly without voiceover. Considering how sparse the narration is and how little the bird chirps reveal, Winged Migration’s accomplishment is major.