I might have to retire Kids’ Film Friday after this. It’ll be hard to find a better one.
I’ll never eat goose again.
After being caught up in a car accident that kills her mother, thirteen-year-old Amy is taken back from New Zealand to live with her father Tom near Ontario, Canada. Initially she finds it hard to settle in a new country, but after discovering a nest of geese eggs and raising the hatchlings, she begins to feel at home. Since the geese don’t have a mother, they imprinted on Amy when they hatched, meaning that they think she is their mother and they will follow her anywhere. Without an older bird to lead them, the geese will not be able to migrate successfully, so Tom and Amy come up with a plan. A plan so crazy, it might… just… work…
This film is just a joy to watch. Sweet, charming, funny, unashamedly sentimental without being cloying, and able to carry a message without ever getting preachy; this is one of the best family films I can think of. It is inspired by the real story of Bill Lishman, an eccentric Canadian inventor and ultralight enthusiast who started training geese to follow his little plane back in 1986. It took him seven years to accomplish what Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin managed in about three weeks, but his charity Operation Migration is now involved in leading migration flights of the endangered whooping cranes from Wisconsin to Florida with the hope of establishing a self-sustaining flock in the next few years.
Daniels and Paquin play Tom and Amy Alden, estranged father and daughter reunited by tragedy and geese after a nine-year break. Both are excellent together; Daniels as a man who has never had to be a father before, still a bit of a child himself in a lot of ways – he has a full-scale replica of the lunar lander in his barn! – suddenly thrown into the deep end as the single father of a teenaged girl he doesn’t really know. Anna Paquin was one of the most naturalistic child actors in years. She has such an expressive face and goes to all sorts of emotional places, but it never seems that she is acting. The two are joined by Dana Delaney as Tom’s girlfriend Susan, Terry Kinney as his brother David and Holter Graham as Barry, the mechanic and builder of the Tom’s ultralight. All five actors share an easy chemistry together that really enforces the sense that this is a family instead of a bunch of people pretending to know each other.
The nominal bad guy is Jeremy Ratchford’s local game warden. It is this character that I think is the film’s only misstep. He starts out as a reasonable, decent guy who gets invited over by Tom to play Exposition Man with advice on raising the goslings. Out of the blue he tries to clip one of the birds’ wings and from that moment on he is suddenly obsessed with locking up and clipping Amy’s flock. It seems like an arbitrary decision to create some conflict in the film. The setup doesn’t work and the sudden change in the character’s behaviour just seems weird. Luckily he doesn’t feature too much, and he disappears from the movie entirely when Amy and Tom take off for points south.
Carroll Ballard was definitely the right director for this film. Between 1979’s The Black Stallion and Duma in 2005, he has made only six movies of which this is number 5. To me, that makes him the Terrence Malick of family films. Ballard is a very lyrical filmmaker and this story, with its many long, dialogue-free sequences suits his sensibilities right down to the ground.
Caleb Deschanel was deservedly Oscar-nominated for his cinematography for Fly Away Home. There are several shots in the film that you could pause, blow up and quite happily hang on your wall, particularly during the final stretch of Amy’s low flight into the bird sanctuary where her flock are to spend the winter. Mark Isham’s score is quite simple but remarkably effective, using instruments like clarinets and accordions during the goslings’ training montages to mirror their movements.
I really just can’t say enough good things about this movie. The special edition DVD I was watching the film on includes two commentary tracks: one with Ballard and Deschanel, and the other with Isham commentating over an isolated score track (which I am currently listening to as I write this). There are also a clutch of excellent short documentaries on both the making of the film, and on Bill Lishman and his real-life escapades.
In 2005, Daniels was reunited with a then-22 year old Anna Paquin in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and The Whale. Instead of father and daughter, they play lovers in that film. Knowing that, I don’t think I can ever watch it. It would just be too weird.