'Winged Migration' is a nature documentary in only the loosest sense of that form. In fact, almost the entire movie was staged for the cameras. In order to obtain their close-up footage of birds in migration, the film's directors Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud, and Michel Debats had to raise most of the animals from birth and "imprint" them to accept humans as part of their flocks. They also transported the birds by plane and truck to photograph them in front of scenic locations. The film was scripted with a structured story, and most scenes were meticulously pre-planned. Really, except for the lack of character dialogue, the movie has more in common with a typical Hollywood production than a documentary.
With that said, none of those factors should detract from the remarkable achievement of the film, which shows us a view of the natural world that couldn't have been accomplished any other way. The cameras place us right up close with birds on land, in their nests, and in flight. The extraordinary aerial footage, captured from ultralight aircraft flying in the midst of the flocks, is breathtaking. The movie brings new meaning to the phrase "bird's eye view." For the first time, human beings can truly see the world from a bird's perspective.
The picture follows the migratory pattern of birds as they travel the world, starting with a flock of geese leaving France in winter for warmer climes. The narrative regularly jumps from one group of birds to another, and takes us around the planet from Europe to North America, from Antarctica to the African deserts. Among the many species on display are cranes, storks, swans, pelicans, gannets, and terns, plus many others that aren't identified. Both a voiceover narration and subtitle trivia track provide occasional info about what we're watching, but they're used only sporadically, and frankly the movie would work just as well without either one.
As you might expect, the filmmakers have a tendency to anthropomorphize the animals, especially when trying to deliver a heavy-handed message about the danger of mankind's intrusion into the natural world. Far too many of the scenes are blatantly staged, sometimes irresponsibly. A vignette in which a clever parrot escapes from South American animal trappers couldn't be more obviously fake. One of the most egregious examples of this finds a group of geese flying through a polluted industrial wasteland. It plays like something out of a bad horror movie. One bird (no doubt encouraged to do so) gets stuck in an oil puddle and is seemingly left to die. I'm sure the camera crew must have pulled it out after the shot wrapped, but the fact that they lured it into that situation at all is rather upsetting. Even worse is the footage of hunters picking off several geese. We're told in the end credits that, "The hunting scene was filmed in North America, on sites where it takes place every year," as if that somehow makes it better. Would those particular birds have been in those hunting grounds if not trucked in and placed there for the movie?
Despite its faults, 'Winged Migration' provides a fascinating look at avian behavior in an up-close-and-personal manner never captured on film before. This is a compelling piece of cinema.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Winged Migration' comes to the Blu-ray format from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. In a rarity for the studio, the disc has no obnoxious promos or trailers before the main menu.
Presented in a 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, the Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer often showcases extraordinary detail. Close-up shots are especially revealing of each bird's individual feathers. Colors are vibrant and eye-catching. 'Winged Migration' is a beautifully-photographed movie, and the Blu-ray looks great for the most part.
Of course, being a nature documentary (of sorts), some shots look better than others. Factors such as filming conditions, lens choices, and the erratic behavior of both the birds and the weather will affect the clarity of many scenes. Most of the movie I wouldn't describe as razor sharp. It's frequently hazy, and some shots look to have been captured on SD video. Additionally, the disc appears to have been run through Noise Reduction and artificial sharpening filters at times. That's mainly noticeable in wide shots, and film grain sometimes comes across a little noisy. Fortunately, the problems typically aren't very invasive or objectionable. By and large, this is a fine-looking disc that makes for nice home theater eye candy.
The Blu-ray provides only English, Spanish, or Portuguese language tracks, all in lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 format. The original French soundtrack is nowhere to be found. However, that really isn't much of a problem for a pseudo-documentary like this. The voiceover narration (by Philippe Labro in the English version) is the only speaking in the movie. There are no actors on screen with overdubbed voices or badly synced dialogue.
The TrueHD track is set for a very loud default (unusual for a Dolby format). The mix is crisp, expansive, and directional. The bird calls reach up into high registers, and are preserved in excellent clarity. The surround channels are used creatively for ambience and environmental sounds. Bass is mainly reserved for the music, but an avalanche or two provide a little bit of rumble. The score sounds appropriately sweeping and majestic.
Sony originally released 'Winged Migration' on DVD back in 2003. The Blu-ray carries over almost all of the bonus features from that disc.
Although a bit too artificial for its own good, 'Winged Migration' is an intriguing view of the natural world. The Blu-ray looks and sounds pretty great, and has an interesting documentary that explains how the film was accomplished. Recommended.