Fly Away Home (1996)

Posted by on Dec 20, 2011 in Buddy Movies | 0 comments

FlyAway1

Disclaimer: One or two instances of swearing.

Fly Away Home completes a man-and-nature trilogy for director Carroll Ballard that wonderfully began with The Black Stallion and continued with Never Cry Wolf. Just as before, Ballard brought on cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (actress Zooey Deschanel’s father). Deschanel’s visionary work earned him an Oscar nomination, but no statue – just like the four nominations that preceded it. Together they handle this movie with a determination to avoid melodrama and over-sentimentality, which ultimately paid off for a truly enjoyable experience.

Take, for instance, the film’s FlyAway2opening scene, where Amy’s (Anna Paquin) mother dies in a car crash, forcing her to reunite with her estranged father (Jeff Daniels). The introductory credits and a soft song create a distance that doesn’t call excess attention to a usually tear-filled moment. They use point-of-view shots and shot/reverse shots to avoid images of carnage and instead establish small details. When Amy comes to, her conversation with her father continues that sense of matter-of-factness. This delicately handled and brief beginning establishes a sense of what has happened, and sets a tone for the beautiful film that is yet to come.

We pick up a month later at an Ontario farm, where we see artwork cluttered throughout Amy’s father’s home. It’s not the first time Amy spent time there, as we later learn she and her mother left about a decade earlier. The transition isn’t an easy one, and we don’t get the feeling that it’s resolved until the very end. Amy spends her days quietly exploring the grounds, leaving her artistic father alone and at work. That’s until an evil developer (is there any other kind in movies?) illegally bulldozes a marsh, its trees, and wildlife habitat. When Amy later explores the area, she discovers goose eggs. She cares for them until suddenly they hatch and cute fuzzy goslings are hobbling around. They soon follow Amy, who they believe to be their mother, everywhere. But since geese learn how to fly and migrate from their parents, this creates a problem for an evil natural resources official. So Amy’s father, also an eccentric amateur aviator, sets out to concoct a plan to lead the 15 geese south for the winter.

Filmmakers took the story from an FlyAway3autobiography by Bill Lishman, a man made famous from his experiments with ultra-light aircraft and migratory birds. But unlike his successful first try, the film suffered a delay and title change after 7-year-old Jessica Dubroff and her father died during a transcontinental flight – one of the year’s biggest news stories. Thankfully, however, the movie’s content didn’t have to suffer.

On the surface this is an inspirational fantasy, and a good one at that, but below the surface it carries a strong message about development in natural areas – a topic that hit home for me after living in Wisconsin Dells, a community that gained prominence for natural beauty before becoming a tourist trap with the moniker “Waterpark Capital of the World.” And while the movie could have harped on the subject, it balances the touchy subject gracefully and argues its point simply with a stunning visual celebration of nature from Canada to North Carolina.

The father-daughter relationship is a difficult one throughout, as she wonders why he chose to be absent and he regrets ever letting her go. Daniels pulls off the role of a weirdo, long-haired father who knows about as much about geese as he does about daughters handily. Paquin, fresh out of an Oscar-nominated performance in The Piano, is also wonderful. Their relationship resurfaces at various points during the movie, mostly to break up the cute animal stuff, so that when the time comes for the birds to leave, they themselves can flock together.

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