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Le Peuple migrateur (Winged Migration)

(2003) *** 1/2 G
85 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Directors: Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats. Cast: Jacques Perrin.

IMAX films staked their claim on big-screen nature documentaries quite some time ago, and perhaps rightly so. But Jacques Perrin's Winged Migration does something that I'm not sure an IMAX film could do. Demanding the flexibility an unwieldy IMAX camera most likely could not provide, Perrin employs ingenious, free-floating photography which takes the viewer skyward after his subject: migratory birds.

Though Perrin and co-directors Jacques Cluzaud and Michel Debats utilize music (and, occasionally, lyrics), explanatory subtitles, and Gallic-inflected narration, Winged Migration makes no attempt to hide what it is: 85 minutes of bird footage. That footage provides astonishing access, for lack of a better word, to the work and play of migratory birds on all seven continents; nevertheless, Winged Migration will not be for everyone.

That said, the film is, remarkably, edited to tell miniature stories in some sequences. At one point, the directors depict Amazonian macaws behaving like human lovebirds, necking in the trees; a moment later, we see the same birds caged by poachers. Many of the brief "narratives" involve the interaction of the birds with man and machine or other encroachers, like an old woman feeding birds from her hand, hunters shooting down fowl, and--in a framing sequence--a rural boy marking a bird to track his migration. In telling the over-arching story of the seasonal journey, vivid ambient sound helps, as does vibrant color.

The filmmakers capture the exotic landscapes as much as the eccentric behavior of the birds. One mind-boggling shot reveals migratory patterns from what appears to be outer space, and the shimmering waters, vast expanses, manmade monuments, and craggy outcroppings from around the globe certainly dazzle. But American audiences may get the most "goosebumps" from the appearance of a bald eagle in the iconic Monument Valley of John Ford or shots lingering on New York's Twin Towers and Statue of Liberty.

Spiriting around the globe, we see African white pelicans appear to synchronize-swim, western grebes in Oregon puffing up and racing along the surface of a lake, the high-diving Icelandic northern gannet, long-necked whooper swans whooping, cranes prancing in France, and perhaps the strangest bird you'll ever see: the greater sage grouse spotted burbling and bristling its spiky tailfeathers in Idaho.

Primarily, though, Perrin succeeds by immersing us in the enterprise of the birds. We fly alongside the barnacle geese; we waddle among the staggering assemblage of Antarctic king pigeons. Most of these birds travel thousands of miles each year, and Perrin works miracles of perspective--distant and close-up--to capture the breathtaking flurries within a circle of life.

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