Goose Pimples Via Geese

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First they flap northward in the spring to their Arctic nesting grounds — the geese, the pelicans, the storks, dozens of species. Then in the fall they wing back home to perhaps Africa or South America, prey to man's and nature's casual malevolence — the hunters, the oil slicks, the raptors — not to mention their own exhaustion.

That's all that happens in Winged Migration, the intellectually austere but technologically and aesthetically riveting documentary that has become a surprise art-house hit this spring. At the moment, it has a per-screen average just a bit south of such megamoronic offerings as The Matrix Reloaded and Bruce Almighty. And as their audiences have fallen away, its has grown.

It deserves its every dollar and its Oscar nomination because it flies with the birds — intimately, soaringly, ecstatically — in ways that are utterly without cinematic precedent. As the film's executive producer, Jean de Tregomain, says, "It not only gives you a bird's-eye view, it lets you become a bird." Under the direction of Jacques Perrin, its many crews mounted cameras on helicopters, gliders (some of them remote-controlled), delta-wing planes, even balloons, so they could fly amid the migrating flocks, often eyeball to eyeball with the birds. You see the world beneath as they see it — stunningly spacious, gorgeously hued and sometimes dangerous, for we are with the birds as they skim beneath the bridges of the Seine or past New York City's skyscrapers.

The picture is just as good when the cameras come down to Earth, studying the way the birds breed, feed and socialize. Knowing that its crews exposed 590 miles of film to make a relatively short (89 min.) film, we have to marvel at the patience and fortitude of its 450 makers, shooting in 40 countries.

Sometimes, alas, the score — not-so-hot Euro-pop — annoys. Sometimes you even get a little bit tired of flapping wings and beauty shots. But the film always recovers from these defects, mostly because Winged Migration's imagery never ceases to amaze. Whether we're seeing a startled flock taking sudden flight or zapping into a mountain lake to catch fish, our eye is constantly bedazzled.

As de Tregomain puts it, this very sophisticated film is "taking cinema back to the earliest moments as a science, when the image being filmed was less tricky than how the camera was going to capture it." There's a purity in this effort. It's enough to give the serious moviegoer heart in this impure season.