Groundbreaking ‘Migration’ flies high

Kyle Smith

Jacques Perrin’s instant classic “Winged Migration” captures the terrifying excitement of flying with one chill-inducing thrill after another strung together like the migrating birds the documentary follows.

Like Perrin’s 1996 film “Microcosmos,” which turned a microscopic lens on the insect world, “Winged Migration” grants the camera one of mankind’s oldest dreams — the ability to fly.

The film follows dozens of species of birds in their various journeys to and from winter havens. From this larger framework, Perrin is able to work in smaller, simpler stories — the feeding of newborns, the clash with the modern world and the danger of predators. The birds are filmed up close and in flight from locales that cover all seven continents, and a narrator offers occasional commentary on migratory habits — all set to the reflective, inspiring score by “Microcosmos” composer Bruno Coulais.

What sets “Winged Migration” apart from cable documentaries is its sense of cinematic bravura. Perrin and a team of nearly 500 people worked for years developing cameras and flying machines to film the birds in flight. Besides using helicopters and small flying machines, the crew invented small remote control cameras that flew alongside the birds, offering an astounding new perspective on flight.

All of this is assembled in a way that never resorts to shaky handheld cameras or sporadic editing. The filmmakers evoke the feeling that the events in the picture are action — that this is a real movie with birds as actors. Indeed, some of the action was dramatized — with the help of birds trained from birth — but the more remarkable scenes are those that would be impossible to plan.

When the sky is filled with screeching specks that ripple like a flag; when a flock of birds careen through a valley, banking in front of the camera; when a crippled bird is encircled by sand crabs — the controlled presentation of such events makes the chaos fit rather nicely into a frame that instills the overwhelming.

The images are so stunning — and so humbling — that after some time you forget how it was accomplished and just take it all in. This is the film’s greatest achievement — engaging its audience in a willful suspension of disbelief usually reserved for summer popcorn films. Despite the mind-boggling technical accomplishments of the film, the material onscreen surpasses it, something most effects-laden big-budget movies fail to achieve.

Much like you can’t describe a summer sunset, you can’t quite explain what makes “Winged Migration” so jaw-droppingly beautiful.