Winged Migration (documentary)

The actors in “Winged Migration” strut across the frame like natural-born stars, aware of but ignoring the presence of cameramen and directors. They have personality and vitality. Oh, and they can fly.

Not since Hitchcock’s “The Birds” have our friends of the air given such lavish performances and earned the top billing they get here. “Winged Migration” is an Oscar-nominated documentary, and by most accounts a pretty honest one, without much trick editing or too many staged situations. Yet its beauty is stunning, and many of the shots are amazing: How in the world did photographers ever get so close?

Reports indicate some of the birds were raised from birth to be in the film — that is, they were exposed to the sounds of the film crew while still in the egg so they wouldn’t be spooked later, when the humans followed them on their migration paths. Seventeen pilots and 14 cinematographers followed hundreds of birds into 40 countries. A lot of luck was probably involved, too, and certainly a lot of time.

There is sparse narration from French filmmaker Jacques Perrin, who co-directed with Jacques Cluzaud and Michel Debats. His words are mostly informational, telling us what birds we’re looking at, and mostly unobtrusive. The point here is to look in silent wonder at the majesty of the avian world, and on that note, the film succeeds spectacularly.

These are lovely creatures anyway, and filming them as they fly over grandly picturesque locales across the globe adds to the effect. Many shots were taken from ultralight aircraft, hot air balloons and other flying apparatus; consequently, the viewer feels as airborne as the birds themselves. Watching the film is the next best thing to flying.

Some ecological messages are passed along, but they are hardly necessary. Seeing the beauty of nature unfold on the big screen and having it wash over you the way this does is enough to make anyone become a birdlover.

A- (1 hr., 38 min.; G.)