Dir: Jacques Perrin. Fr/Ger/Sp. 2001. 97mins.
Travelling Birds offers audiences a rare chance to fly like a bird without recourse to mind-expanding drugs. This is the third in a trilogy of big-screen nature films produced - and in this case directed - by former French matinee idol Jacques Perrin. Microcosmos, the second in the series, proved that nature could make the leap from the small to the large screen without being excessively Disneyfied. This follow-up has chalked up over two and a half million viewers in France since its pre-Christmas opening, and looks set to repeat the success of Microcosmos, which took more than $25m worldwide.
Using a variety of airborne craft, from paragliders to hot-air balloons, a crew of more than 300 followed several species of migrating birds for a period of 40 months - a long shoot even by nature documentary standards. Other birds were filmed nesting, feeding and courting in a specially-constructed sanctuary.
Audiences are so accustomed to animatronic wildlife that it takes a few seconds to realise that these are real birds, filmed from ravishingly close quarters as they soar over tundra, desert, sea and farmland. We not only see the birds, but we see what the birds see, such as the surface of the earth, filmed with scarce regard to national borders. Cities - including New York, with Twin Towers intact - merge with the other obstacles the birds have to overcome on their epic journeys. Humans are hardly present at all, except as hunters, jailers of caged birds, and polluters - although a seemingly deserted naval frigate provides a handy mid-ocean perch for a flock of arctic tern.
As in Microcosmos, reams of raw footage (450km, to be exact) have been edited into narrative chunks, complete with goodies and baddies, drama and comedy. In a typical sequence, amusement at watching an encounter between a real duck and a plastic decoy turns to horror - in true Hollywood suspense style - as a dog comes splashing through the reeds and the shots of a group of hunters ring out. In another scene with echoes of David Lynch, a bird with a broken wing is devoured by a crawling heap of crabs on an African beach. Younger viewers will be happily traumatised.
It seems rather a shame that the filmmakers had to resort to corny American voiceovers at key points: however, there are so few of these that a way could be found to leave them out together. The soundtrack, which mixes ethnic mood music by regular Perrin collaborator Bruno Coulais and songs by Robert Wyatt and Nick Cave, is suitably New Age, and does a reasonably good job, underlining moments of avian comedy at certain points without ever going overboard. In the end, though, the stunning, soaring, colour drenched photography is what matters about this film. It's a nature documentary with the boring bits taken out; the eco-friendly version of an endless Hollywood car chase.
Prod cos: Galatee Films, Pandora Film, Wanda Vision
Int'l sales: President Films
Cinematography: Olli Barbe, Michel Benjamin, Sylvie Carcedo, Laurent Charbonnier, Luc Drion, Laurent Fleutot, Philippe Garguil, Dominique Gentil, Bernard Lutic, Thiery Machado, Stephane Martin, Fabrice Moindroit, Ernst Sasse, Michel Terrasse, Thierry Thomas
Ed: Marie-Joseph Yoyotte
Music: Bruno Coulais