Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Fly Away Home

Films of authentic beauty, love and sadness are rare, so finding one is a cause for celebration.

In '86, I found Louis Mandoki's extraordinary Gaby - A True Story, which was released the same year as Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot, and explored similar territory. Unfortunately, the Daniel Day Lewis film got the attention and the Oscar, and Gaby, a far superior piece of humanist cinema, got totally ignored.

It is still being ignored, in fact; there has never been a DVD release.

Gaby is one of my Top 20 films of all time -- I re-watch my VHS constantly.

Sharing equal footing with Gaby on that list is Carroll Ballard's captivating Fly Away Home, a film I cannot hurl enough superlatives at.

On its initial theatrical release in the US, the film did very average business. Although intended as a "family film", its gentle, almost brittle emotional core was at odds with the new breed of family films that were being redefined by companies such as Disney and Pixar. The film wasn't manic or boisterous or filled with gags and jokes. Even its original poster art suggested a melancholy journey rather than a rollicking good time with flocks of wise-cracking geese.

When released on DVD, the marketing shifted its focus in a more definite, family-friendly direction that appealed to children and their love of animals.

I'm sure this didn't harm its desirability.

The DVD cover directly above, which is the first edition, captures the film's spirit best.

What happens in the film's first five minutes is not, in fact, unusual for an old-fashioned children's story. Amy (Anna Paquin) loses her mother in an auto accident in New Zealand, and is then sent to live with her father, Tom (Jeff Daniels) in Canada. Tom is an eccentric inventor who lives on a farm which is the Summer home for migratory geese.

Tom's relationship with his daughter is pretty much non-existent, so he leaves her to grieve as he works on a variety of flying machines.

One morning, in a beautifully photographed sequence, Amy sees her father in the sky above the house, and is further traumatized when he crashes into a field.

The father/daughter relationship begins to develop, however, when Amy becomes Mother Goose to a dozen baby geese who have lost their real mother.

She imprints with them by behaving as they do, and eventually leads them South across the country where they will spend their first Winter.

Director Carroll Ballard, whose previous films have included The Black Stallion ('79), Duma ('05), Wind ('92) and Never Cry Wolf (('83), has an acute sensitivity towards nature and natural process. Exploring our sometimes uneasy relationship with the animal world, he brings enormous emotional depth to Fly Away Home. The result is a piece of cinema that takes the breath away, ignites the mind, and fills the heart with an appreciation for the majesty of the world around us.

Cinematographer Caleb Daschanel, who shot The Black Stallion and The Natural, delivers exquisite, transporting images of beauty and wonder. Composer Mark Isham, who should have won an Oscar for this, creates a score that expands on the script's emotional base.

Paquin is terrific as Amy, further demonstrating the maturity she displayed in her debut film, Jane Campion's The Piano ('93).

Jeff Daniels, who is always solid, delivers a fine turn as Tom.

Because it is so delicately realized, the film never becomes schmaltzy or maudlin.

The flying sequences are nothing short of amazing, seamlessly combining live action shooting and effective green screen processes.

Although it would have been easy to let the cinematography dominate, director Ballard never loses site of the fact that this is a story of a little girl's growth.

The climax of the film, which takes place above a long, winding river as Mary Chapin Carpenter's heart-rending "10,000 Miles" is played, is cinematic perfection.

On video, the film has developed a much-deserved following.

If you haven't seen it, I envy you the experience of seeing it for the first time.


  1. Indeed, a beautiful film, and one that appeals to a broad spectrum- from young and old, to the good, the bad and the ugly.

    I sense the appeal of this film, and the legion of loyal fans, says something about our (often latent) humanity, our desire for kinship with nature and our fellow 'beasts', our desire for connection with 'family' and communion with other like minded souls on the planet, and the often not so latent desire to realise a dream- no matter how absurd.

    Anaethema and antedote to the harm inflicted by the ignorant cellphone users in the theatre, I would venture...

    I am at the same time stunned and somewhat heartened by the primo red carpet treatment the film got on release here on DVD; a rarity in itself, for an equally rare treasure of a film...

    Well done, Phantoma...

  2. I was stunned, too.

    Definitely an anaethema to the cellphone texting crowd.

    Thanks for reading, mandingo.