Friday, May 02, 2014

Fly Away Home (1996)

USA / Canada, 107 minutes
Director: Carroll Ballard
Writers: Bill Lishman, Robert Rodat, Vince McKewin
Photography: Caleb Deschanel
Music: Mark Isham
Editor: Nicholas C. Smith
Cast: Anna Paquin, Jeff Daniels, Dana Delany, Terry Kinney, Holter Graham, Jeremy Ratchford

Sometimes I think Fly Away Home may be something like my token selection out of the ghetto of G-rated movies. All the reviews seem to find a way to mention that rating very quickly and usually also include the phrase "family fare" too (so glad I got them both out of the way myself). There are things to say about this, as there are about the other extreme of this spectrum, the X or NC-17 or "unrated" rating, or whatever it is called now. Both are commercial curses—in the case of the G it tends to relegate to a narrow market where I suspect managing children and their parents are more the goals and everything else secondary. At the other extreme—what is the last movie released with one? Henry & June? Midnight Cowboy?

With Fly Away Home it's almost certainly director Carroll Ballard who is most important in making it such an extraordinarily effective story, whose thoughtful themes are rarely cheated on and, indeed, are front and center right in the title: flight, and home. He pulled off a similarly elegiac stunt involving animals and sad children nearly 20 years earlier with The Black Stallion. Fly Away Home is populated with stock figures and sequences for a G-rated picture— funnee aminals, tender and frolicsome music, approximately six kind persons and/or institutions for every malevolent one, etc.—but it hits very hard at the longings and experiences of people of all ages (there, I said that too).

Anna Paquin, who was only 13 but had already made her mark three years earlier in The Piano, plays Amy Alden, whose mother dies at the beginning of the picture in a shocking if beautiful auto accident in New Zealand. Amy goes to live with her father Tom (Jeff Daniels, who is fine as usual) in Canada. He's a kind of mad scientist and inventor artist who is obsessed with flying machines and things like hang-gliding. His house is a sty and he has a girlfriend, who though kindly has obviously been marked out as stepmother material by Amy.

At about this point, and not for the last time, some tropy evil figures enter in—developers with bulldozers chiefly and the marketing men and lawyers in cheap suits who clear the way for them—and topical issues are briefly entertained. Out of the clash, Amy finds a collection of abandoned goose eggs and incubates them into hatching. Science then enters the picture as we learn all about the life arcs of geese and, most critically, the concept of imprinting, on which the whole thing hinges. The geese believe Amy is their mother, and the problem is that when it comes time for them to migrate south in the fall there will be no one to show them the way.

I realize I am reducing this movie to its story but the story is mostly what drives it, and it's a beautiful and charming story. The young geese are wonderful, as all young animals are, particularly in G-rated pictures, and their devotion to Amy and its effect on her are equally so. The movie has a sure hand on all its elements. As caring for the geese has its beneficial, empowering effects on Amy, her father sees and responds like a decent human being. More and more I find myself deeply touched and moved in narratives by the simple expedient of kindness, and so it is with Fly Away Home. The kid cares for the geese, and though it is an impossible situation her father goes to great lengths to protect the healing fantasy she has wandered into. About my only complaint is that Paquin has a really screechy scream and too many scenes are built around that, in wacky fashion.

At about this point it becomes a ridiculous story. But the emotional side, which is well constructed and played, coupled with the stunningly beautiful photography, serve to help us not quite notice how ridiculous it is, as Tom invents a flying machine for Amy to lead the geese south to a safe home. The scientific exposition, which is constant but never heavy-handed, always serving to illuminate, has already informed us that the geese only need to be led on the route once and they will know the way back in the spring.

And so, in the second half, off we go on a great adventure, which swells in size as they travel south. Everyone is on their side except the evil developers and maybe an evil park ranger or two, and they get help from the strangest places, including the military, an old woman with a shotgun, and downtown Baltimore. That's how it works in feel-good movies—everyone is on your side. And make no mistake, this is feel-good down to its toenails. But that doesn't mean it isn't perfectly capable of making us feel good without cheating. Fly Away Home is about things that are worth feeling good about: home, flight, restored faith, deep connection, commitment, responsibility, and adorable geese. I love it with everything I've got.

No comments:

Post a Comment