It was worth the trip, though. I'd anticipated that there would be lots of close-up shots of flapping birds, and so there are: geese, storks, cranes, eagles, you name it. The filmmakers attached cameras to anything that would stay in the air, so it's as though you're flying alongside them for long stretches as the world speeds by beneath you and your flock. What I hadn't anticipated was that that world would be as much the focus of the film as the birds themselves. In retrospect, it makes sense: the word "bird" isn't in the title (nor in the French original) but "migration" is. This is less about the dancer than the dance.
Thus, in following these migrations of thousands of miles across the latitudes, Winged Migration supplies us with a stunning, magnificent travelogue of Planet Earth, from the Eiffel Tower and the World Trade Center to Monument Valley and the Great Wall of China to arctic cliffs, the African savannah and the jungles of the Amazon, all of it seen from the perspective of those to whom forbidding natural barriers are no more daunting than lines on a map. We watch an eye-popping Himalayan avalanche — to a human the end of the world, but to a bird just an annoyance. Have to flap for a bit till things settle down. How inconvenient.
It's also hard to miss the extent to which, even to a wild bird, this is for better or worse humankind's planet. The steepled cities and skyscrapers look quite noble, but then we have the nightmare of Eastern Europe, swathed in aerosolized tar, where we watch an oil slick claim one of the flock. A young boy frees a duck from some netting so it can join its fellows on their journey north, but a goose locked in a chicken coop has no such rescuer... and it's hard to put into words how sickening it was to watch these glorious creatures shot down by hunters (just once I'd like to see a politician speaking in favor of gun control skip the bit about how of course guns will be permitted for our dashing "sportsmen"... yo, murder isn't a sport. There is very little more loathesome than killing wildlife for fun.) On the flipside, while the sight of a poacher's boat complete with frantic monkeys and toucans is very upsetting, it is almost made up for by the escape of a clever parrot; it's stirring because it's real.
But I also found the whole idea of migration in general rather stirring. I've moved around a lot — I picked up and headed off to a new state in 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2001 and 2002 — and I like it. If not for the hassle and expense of moving I'd happily change locales several times a year. It's interesting... around here there are all sorts of ethnic microclimates — Ludlow is mostly Portuguese, Holyoke is Puerto Rican, South Hadley is half French — and it occurred to me that for this to still be the case, generations after the mills recruited these populations from Portugal and Puerto Rico and Quebec, people have to be born in, say, Ludlow, and grow up in Ludlow, and marry in Ludlow, and have children and grandchildren in Ludlow, and never leave Ludlow. Not just never leave the Northeast: never leave Ludlow. This is inconceivable to me. I thought it might have something to do with the fact that this is, well, the sticks, and I'm from oh so cosmopolitan Southern California... but then I looked up a bunch of people from my high school to see where they'd ended up, and nearly all of them were still in Orange County. Egad. I guess that Those Who Stay are the overwhelming majority anywhere, at least among humans, bound by gravity and other fetters. I'm one of Those Who Go, but even I'm kind of an amateur. Birds — they're pros.