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Movie review: 'Winged Migration: A wing and a (answered) prayer

It would be easy to dismiss "Winged Migration" as nothing more than an upscale version of the old Disney nature flicks. To be sure, the movie, which follows various birds as they migrate in the fall and spring, is a bit of a stacked deck. There's...

It would be easy to dismiss "Winged Migration" as nothing more than an upscale version of the old Disney nature flicks.

To be sure, the movie, which follows various birds as they migrate in the fall and spring, is a bit of a stacked deck. There's little recognition that life in the wild can be nasty, brutish and short.

There's some passing acknowledgement that migration isn't for the faint of wing, but most of the trouble comes from humans. Hunters shoot birds out of the sky. A flock of red-breasted geese land at a fetid eastern European factory to rest; one alights in an oil-filled puddle and is unable to take off again. They're scenes calculated to make you say, "Darn those nasty humans."

The only concession to nature's own brutality comes in a frankly creepy and mercifully short scene in which crabs swarm over a crippled bird.

On the other side of the coin, there are plenty of scenes of birds raising their young that are calculated to make you say, "Awwwwwwwww."

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But if you can set aside the tree-hugger romanticism, the Oscar-nominated "Winged Migration" is an awesome technical achievement. Its cinematography not only is technically amazing, but often staggeringly beautiful.

Director Jacques Perrin used more than 450 people -- including 17 pilots and 14 cinematographers -- virtually every kind of flying machine and new kinds of cameras to document the migration of various birds through more than 40 countries and across every continent. The birds fly through Paris and New York and across African deserts and Antarctic wastelands.

There are deep-focus shots taken from the middle of migrating flocks. Other shots show huge groups of birds taking off, looking from a distance like uncountable swarms of insects.

There's even some comic relief. A mother bird catches a fish to feed the family and prepares it by whacking it against a tree branch (which, admittedly, isn't very comical if you're the fish).

Something called a Clark's grebe has feathers on its head that make it look like Moe Howard and it has the ability to skip across water. A colorful Amazonian bird is captive in a cage on a riverboat, but manages to open the door and make a break for freedom (calculated to make you say, "Take that, you darned humans").

The film is sparsely narrated by Perrin. Most of his narration verges on silly; after all, does anybody really know that old birds teach young birds how to recognize landmarks so they can follow the same path the next year? "See junior, take a left at the outhouse."

But stripped of its nature-film silliness, "Winged Migration" rewards watching. It's one thing to see a bird in flight from the ground, but shots taken among a flock on the wing approach visual poetry.

And some of the scenes that stick with you don't even show flight. There's a gorgeous close-up of a white owl on the ground that's among the film's most memorable images.

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Those are scenes that aren't calculated to make you say anything, but to simply convey a sense of wonder about nature and its timeless rhythms. In an age when the world can be too much with us, Perrin and company have provided a priceless look at another reality.

The film opens today in Fargo. It also is the focus of a Tuesday event sponsored by Audubon Dakota. There will be a wine and cheese reception hosted by former North Dakota Gov. George Sinner and his wife, Jane, at 6:30 p.m. that day, followed by a showing of the film at 7:15 p.m.

Tickets for that are $25 each. To reserve a seat, call (701) 298-3373 or e-mail dschneider@audubon.org .

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541

"Winged Migration"

Fargo Theatre

Rated G

89 minutes

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Three out of four stars

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