FLY AWAY HOME (1996) ***
Technically and pictorially, "Fly Away Home" (by Carroll Ballard of "The Black Stallion" fame), is a small gem. In other aspects, some questions come up. 1) Will a bushy beard make likable lightweight Jeff Daniels more of a pronounced character? 2) Will Anna Paquin make the transition from Oscar-winner ("The Piano") child performer to teen-age star? 3) Does the movie move you? 4) Is it entirely believable? 5) Is this overall a good film?
The answers: 1) just a little; 2) perhaps; 3) now yes, now no; 4) not really; 5) yes.
When her mother dies in a car crash in New Zealand, 13-year old Amy is taken back to her native Canada by her long estranged (and idiosyncratic) father. She has trouble adjusting until she finds a raison d'etre by becoming Mother Goose to several orphan goslings. Dad, a hand-glider devotee among other things, helped by friends succeeds in building two motorized ultra-light craft. Rescuing the now grown-up geese from the Law, father and daughter fly south to winter quarters in North Carolina, each one his/her machine, followed by the now migrating birds.
This is no tall tale. In 1988, Mr. William Lishman successfully led a flock of geese in like fashion. In 1993, with a team, he guided 18 geese some 400 miles from Ontario to Virginia, and in 1994, 38 birds over 800 miles, from Ontario to South Carolina. These and other experiments have been of major importance to threatened or endangered migrating species.
The film takes on even greater Mother Goose-ey fairy tale dimensions as it invents the character of Amy, with, however, elements from real life. Anna Paquin was born in Canada, her father was Canadian, her mother a New Zealander, and they were divorcing during the making of the film.
What personal traits William Lishman and Thomas Alden (Daniels) share, I cannot tell. Thomas is sketched out as an eccentric, a sculptor, conservationist, flyer, inventor and a nut of sorts who lives in an "artistic" mess. Yet we still have no clear image of or feeling for him.
Little Orphan Amy is a rather sullen, a resentful daughter who doesn't warm up to a father she hasn't seen since she was three. To a characterless score by Mark Isham, Amy goes to boring school. Life is dull until the birds and their causes predictably bond father and daughter. Predictably too, Dad has a sweet, understanding girlfriend who is anxious to make friends with reluctant Amy.
A parallel sub-plot ties ecology and animal welfare. Technology and land development ("civilization") encroach as bulldozers tear up Ontario's bucolic landscape. This factor figures later in the migration sequences.
For its first thirty minutes the movie is one of mood, eccentricities and lovely nature, but lacks focus and is not particularly involving. The turning point for me was esthetic, when at minute 32 Amy is briefly shown lying in a field in what looks like a beautiful imitation of the painting "Christina's world" by Andrew Wyeth.
The tempo picks up with the nurturing of the eggs, the hatching, the goslings who (as is common) identify the first being they see (Amy) as their mother. She walks, runs, twirls as she calls to them. They follow her faithfully. Amy and her birds become an irresistibly enchanting sight, many degrees above plain "cute," especially as few things in life are as soul-satifying as humans and animals connecting with one another.
When an official quotes ordnance 9314, which requires the clipping of wings of such geese, father and daughter explode and unite in protest and opposition. Esthetic and emotional levels rise considerably.
The project to lead the birds to migration takes over the story, with good rhythm, interesting experiments made with flying machines (you wonder where the money comes from), the training of people and birds, the actual trek by air. For many of us the sense of worry and danger will be heightened by the memory of Jessica Dubroff, the 7-year old pilot who, with her father, crashed to her death several months ago. No doubt this gave nightmares to the filmmakers.
But talk of uplift! When we enter prime National Geographic territory, the flight of the humans and the birds is a gorgeous, fascinating succession of patterns, colors, landscapes and skyscapes. The incidents are quite attaching, even when they lean more to movie-movie events than fact. Some outlandish, even absurd scenes -- like flying through the canyons of Baltimore -- can only have been computer-generated, but still, they are not blatantly heroic. As the film escalates from feel-good to feel-great, it becomes a joy for old and young.
Performances are good, partly because the characters play in quiet fashion, miles away from bombastic. It is more like the mood produced by massed strings than by a marching band. I do deplore the diamond that is put in Amy's nose, a trendy desecration of Indian culture -- but then the birds and the bird people make up for this generously.