An animal, kid and family picture of the first order, "Fly Away Home" marks an impressive return to form for Carroll Ballard, his best work since "The Black Stallion" 17 years ago. An unexpectedly engrossing tale about an adolescent girl who raises a bunch of orphan goslings to maturity, then leads them on a migratory path by flying a homemade plane, the film could appeal, on different levels, to children and adults in equal measure.

An animal, kid and family picture of the first order, “Fly Away Home” marks an impressive return to form for Carroll Ballard, his best work since “The Black Stallion” 17 years ago. An unexpectedly engrossing tale about an adolescent girl who raises a bunch of orphan goslings to maturity, then leads them on a migratory path by flying a homemade plane, the film could appeal, on different levels, to children and adults in equal measure. There are a few marketing air pockets, but this gem’s many pluses should overcome them to propel it on a solid commercial flight. Pic had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival.

Undoubtedly the modern American cinema’s foremost animal lover, Ballard has forged a satisfying balance here, matching an eccentric artist father and an emotionally bereft daughter with the foundling fowl who need instruction in how to behave like the geese that they are. Much of the airborne footage of the second half is genuinely remarkable, with lots of close-up footage of the big birds flying in formation taken from an accompanying tiny plane.

When the mother of 13-year-old Amy Alden (Anna Paquin) is killed in an auto accident in New Zealand, she is packed off to the Canadian compound of her long-estranged father, Thomas (Jeff Daniels). A gruff, self-absorbed and evidently successful conceptual sculptor, this scruffy leftover hippie is unable to help his daughter through her grief, but the answer soon presents itself in the form of more than a dozen goose eggs thrown out of a nest by some encroaching developers.

Amy keeps the eggs warm and, lo and behold, they hatch, producing a menagerie of ravenous fuzzballs. Her attention and emotions once again engaged, Amy literally becomes Mother Goose to the little ones, who, it is explained, “imprint” upon the first living thing they see after birth. Relieved to find his daughter coming to life again, Thomas indulges her, but as the summer passes and the geese quickly grow, the problem of what is to become of the flock looms large.

Although some adults could find them a bit on the treacly side, the scenes of the flightless little birds scurrying around the farm to follow Amy wherever she goes are mightily disarming and serve to fuse a bond so absolute that the extraordinary events of the climactic journey become dramatically unimpeachable. The father-daughter relationship simultaneously gathers strength, as it is the endlessly resourceful Thomas who proposes the seemingly outrageous solution of how to get the geese to migrate south: Build a little plane that Amy can fly so that the birds will follow her to a proper destination.

Looked at rationally, the obstacles appear formidable, if not overwhelming: To succeed, Thomas mustconstruct a plane, teach Amy to fly it and somehow encourage the geese to “imprint” on the aircraft. There are also the questions of locating a winter home, circumventing Canadian authorities who want to clip the birds’ wings, slipping over an international boundary, building up the geese’s stamina to make the long flight and dealing with threatening weather.

The necessity of Amy’s learning to pilot the flyweight Ultra-light plane reps one of the story’s key inspirational elements, but it will undoubtedly be one that publicists endeavor to downplay given the uncomfortable parallel to the girl pilot Jessica Dubroff, who perished with her father on a cross-country flight earlier this year. But mindful even of that tragedy, the scenes in which Amy takes to the air and the geese instinctively follow a tiny plane disguised as a giant goose produce the desired goose bumps, paving the way for no doubt unprecedented migration of 16 geese and a little girl from Ontario to some wetlands in North Carolina.

Ballard and scenarists Robert Rodat and Vince McKewin hoke matters up a bit by imposing some artificial melodrama in the form of a North Carolina developer ready to pounce on the wintering grounds if the geese don’t arrive by a certain hour, and commercially minded real estate people and a duplicitous wildlife ranger are crudely used as one-dimensional villains throughout.

But the dynamic between Daniels’ vigorous, if self-involved, artist father and Paquin’s initially sullen, eventually self-discovering teenager is warmly and believably conveyed, with both thesps doing strongly individualistic work. Dana Delany, as the sculptor’s girlfriend; Terry Kinney, as his somewhat flaky brother; and Holter Graham, as a helpful friend, are agreeable, if rather mild, as the important support team for the project.

The sight of what is clearly a flock of real geese winging along at close range is breathtaking, and inspires wonderment at how the filmmakers got the geese to cooperate. A few of the more impossible flying-geese effects, notably some shots of the birds sailing between skyscrapers in downtown Baltimore, would appear to have been artificially created.

Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who burst upon the scene so spectacularly with “The Black Stallion” but had not shot a feature in a number of years until now, reteams with Ballard to outstanding effect. The flying footage aside, this new film doesn’t provide quite the visual opportunities that “Stallion” did, but it is still a richly composed, beautifully lit picture.

The stylistic rigor and careful rein on the drama is unfortunately not entirely matched by Mark Isham’s music, which is flavorsome at times but, at key moments, too often hits obvious and conventional notes in an effort to score easy emotional points that the film itself is trying to earn legitimately. Marie-Sylvie Deveau’s charming costumes for Paquin nicely help externalize the girl’s slightly offbeat personality.

Fly Away Home

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release from Columbia Pictures of a Sandollar production. Produced by John Veitch, Carol Baum. Executive producer, Sandy Gallin. Directed by Carroll Ballard. Screenplay, Robert Rodat, Vince McKewin, based on the autobiography by Bill Lishman.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Technicolor prints), Caleb Deschanel; editor, Nicholas C. Smith; music, Mark Isham; production design , Seamus Flannery; set decoration, Dan Conley; costume design, Marie-Sylvie Deveau; sound (Dolby SR/SDDS), Douglas Ganton; digital visual effects and animation, C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures; associate producer, John M. Eckert; assistant director, John Houston; second unit director and camera, Gary Capo; casting, Reuben Cannon, Deirdre Bowen. Reviewed at Sony Studios, Culver City, July 30, 1996. (In Telluride, Toronto film festivals.) MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 107 MIN.

With

Thomas Alden - Jeff Daniels
Amy Alden - Anna Paquin
Susan Barnes - Dana Delany
David Alden - Terry Kinney
Barry Strickland - Holter Graham
Glen Seifert - Jeremy Ratchford
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