Studio: Sony Picture Classics
Year: 2003 (United States Release)
Length: 89 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 1080p
Languages: English, Portuguese, Spanish Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Portuguese, Spanish, Danish, Finnish, Hindi, Norwegian, Swedish
Winged Migration is a nature documentary for people who hate nature documentaries.
I confess to some ambivalence about nature films. While they often contain fascinating facts and images, the lack of a dramatic narrative sometimes makes it difficult for such films to maintain audience interest for feature-film length. Winged Migration overcomes this by combining jaw-dropping images with surprising dramatic elements.
At its essence, Winged Migration is about the biannual migratory patterns of many different species of birds. When I was boy, growing up in New York State, I thought that birds flew to Florida for the winter and came back to New York in the spring. Of course, in reality the migration routes are as varied as the species of birds, with some covering thousands of miles each spring and fall. Some birds actually fly all the way from the North Pole to the South Pole and back again.
What sets Winged Migration apart from other nature documentaries is that it is a dazzling feast for the eyes. The filmmakers used planes, gliders, helicopters and balloons to fly with the birds. Instead of simply watching birds fly, this film gives the viewer the feeling of flying with the birds. The introductory phase of the film shows these magnificent creatures flying north for the summer. They proceed through the skies in formation, sometimes wings flapping, sometime gliding, and occasionally landing for food, water, and rest. Once they reach their destinations, they break formation, not assembling again until it is time to once again head south.
The dramatic aspects of migration are covered when the birds reverse course and head south for the winter. Migration is full of dangers, both natural and man-made. Flying through winter storms, escaping avalanches, and simple exhaustion when there are no places to land are some of the hazards which migrating birds face. One segment shows tired birds landing on a French warship during a storm in the Atlantic.
While Winged Migration is rated G, there are some sequences which children may find disturbing. Birds have to contend with natural predators, and the film includes a scene of a bird with a broken wing being pursued and killed by crab-like creatures in Africa (apparently the bird actually was rescued by the filmmakers). A scene of penguins in Antarctica shows a baby penguin being surrounded and killed by predator birds. To me the most troubling scenes involve human hunters shooting geese out of the sky. I have never understood the appeal of hunting, particularly when it involves laying in wait for a flock of migrating birds to fly by. If the prey were humans, it would be called an ambush.
If Winged Migration has a weakness, it is that it provides too little factual information to go along with the stunning footage. There is minimalist English narration by Philippe Labro, who speaks with a distinct French accent that sometimes makes him difficult to understand. The narration is supplemented by occasional English subtitles. It would have been nice if each new scene identified the birds involved, and I often found myself wondering how long it takes the birds to cover thousands of miles, something which the film never addresses.
Some commentators have questioned how “natural” this film really is, given that many of the birds were raised by the filmmakers. The process of acclimation was necessary for the birds to accept the presence of humans in their midst. This is a mere quibble, however. The result is an intimate look at the flight patterns of birds, the likes of which have never been filmed before.
Those caveats aside, Winged Migration is a stunning visual treat which you will likely want to play again and again when showing off your home theater to your friends.
The Blu-ray release of Winged Migration is simply stunning. The 1.85:1 1080p presentation will leave you with the feeling that you are floating though the clouds with the migrating birds. The colors are solid and vivid, bringing the magnificent scenery to life. The close-up shots are truly amazing, to the point where you can almost count the feathers on the birds. I detected no annoying artifacts, edge enhancement or excessive DNR. The sharpness of the picture varies somewhat, but that appears to be a factor of the conditions under which some of the scenes were shot and the fact that 14 different cinematographers were involved.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English soundtrack is excellent. For some reason Sony chose not to include the original French soundtrack. As noted, the narration is sparse, but there is an expansive musical score which is beautifully reproduced here. The true test, however, is how well the sounds of the birds have been captured. Their voices and the sounds of their wings fill up the room, the sound mix making excellent use of the surround channels. My two cats, who were napping when I began to watch Winged Migration, came to life and seemed to be perplexed about how birds had managed to get into the house.
All of the extras on the Blu-ray disc appear to have been carried over from the DVD which was released in 2003.
Director Jacques Perrin provides an English-language commentary with a heavy French accent. He tends to wax philosophic and does not provide as many insights into the filming as I had hoped for.
“The Making of Winged Migration” is a 52-minute documentary which will answer most of your “how did they do that?” questions. The only drawback here is that the documentary is in standard definition. An HD version would have been a terrific companion piece, but even in SD it is well worth watching.
Other standard definition extras include a featurette about scoring the film, interviews with the films co-directors, and a photo gallery with narration which identifies many of the bird species and filming locations. This information could easily have been incorporated into the feature, but at least it is accessible here.
The single disc is secured in a standard Blu-ray keepcase.
The Final Analysis
If you have ever wondered what it is like to fly with the birds, this is likely as close as you will ever come to finding out. While not a traditional documentary by any means, Winged Migration is eye candy of the highest order, a dazzling visual treat.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic DMP-BD50 Blu-ray player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: April 7, 2009