Winged Migration (2001) – PopMatters Film Review )

The first thing that we learn in Winged Migration, an exceptional documentary about the migratory behavior of birds, is that “No special effects were used in the filming of the birds.” There is a good reason for this announcement, as some of the images presented here are so astonishing and exquisite that one can hardly believe that they came from unaltered wild animal footage.

The Graylag Goose, the Bald Eagle, the Arctic Tern, and the Rockhopper Penguin are only a few of the many avian protagonists of the film. As the film reminds us, migration is a quintessential part of the birds’ quest for survival. Watching Winged Migration one learns a few tidbits probably not well known outside ornithology circles, such as how the distance these various birds travel each year varies. Rockhopper Penguins, for example, migrate over the relatively small distance of 650 miles. The Arctic Tern, on the other hand, has to travel more than 12,500 miles, all the way from the Arctic to the Antarctic.

But Winged Migration is not devoted solely to scientific information. As a matter of fact, its structure is completely different from what we might expect from a nature documentary. We do not hear a Hollywood star presenting long-winded details of bird physiology. We don’t learn about evolutionary processes, or how birds find their way around. Instead, the directors keep the narration to a minimum and use a melodic soundtrack and outstanding images to tell dramatic stories. Winged Migration is less a documentary than visual poetry, giving viewers an opportunity to witness nature at its most beautiful.

Arguably, the most awe-inspiring images are those showing flying geese and ducks. The camera travels barely inches away from the birds, which gives the viewer the feeling of flying alongside them. Highlighting the birds’ elegant aerodynamic motion, such scenes also reveal their remarkable strength and tenacity.

As gorgeous as such footage may be, Winged Migration also presents truly harrowing moments. After nearly completing their long trek, some ducks are gunned down by hunters. A baby bird that is only learning to fly plummets into the sea. And most shocking of all, a bird with a broken wing is chased by a horde of hungry crabs. With these images, the documentary reminds us that life may be beautiful, but survival is far from easy.

Because of its unique aesthetics, Winged Migration makes one wonder how it ever got filmed. Thankfully, Columbia’s DVD includes a series of insightful special features and a director’s commentary that specifies the many hurdles that had to be jumped during production. Here one finds out about the many types of planes, gliders, helicopters, balloons, and boats used to film the birds, and how the crew produced more than 300 hours of footage.

These behind-the-scenes features also expose that some scenes were staged and do not exactly represent the birds in their natural state. Probably the most interesting aspect of this disclosure is the fact that, years before the actual production began, the filmmakers exposed birds’ eggs and chicks to the sounds of cameras and humans, to make them familiar with such noises and thereafter ease the filmmaking process. These birds were born and raised to be the stars of Winged Migration.

The film’s innovative production methods and striking visual presentation challenge common definitions of “documentary.” One may not learn much biology or history here, but instead can witness an intimate and loving portrayal of life in the wild. In a world currently threatened by the extinction of hundreds of species of wild animals, such exposure can raise awareness, and perhaps inspire action.