Fly Away Home (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Let me say up front that I have never been especially fond of Canadian geese. Sure, they're cute when they're young, but they are long past the adorable stage when they first take to the air. Now that I've made that admission, you might be surprised to learn that I actually liked the goose-fest, Fly Away Home. However, while there are geese aplenty here, the movie isn't so much about birds as it is about a lonely little girl and how, in pursuit of a common goal, she and her estranged father find one another.

Fly Away Home starts with one of the most disconcerting scenes I've seen in a recent motion picture: a silent car accident that takes place during the opening credits while a soft, gentle melody plays in the background. The effect created by this juxtaposition of tragic and hopeful elements is sufficient to arrest anyone's attention. And, while the film never again attains this level of artistry, there are a few scenes that come close. Caleb Deschanel's photography is one of the movie's highlights.

The opening crash occurs in New Zealand, where Amy Alden (Anna Paquin) and her mother live. Amy's mother dies in the accident, and the thirteen-year old is forced to move to Ontario, Canada, where her father, Thomas (Jeff Daniels), has a home. Thomas, a sculptor and wilderness conservation activist, doesn't understand his daughter, and his earnest attempts to get close to her are rebuffed. When asked why he didn't visit her more often when she was younger, he says that New Zealand is a long way off. Her response to that: "That's a lame excuse, Dad." And, of course, it is.

While Thomas is busy with his work, Amy plays mother to 16 goose eggs that she finds abandoned in their nest. After constructing a makeshift incubator, Amy awaits the big moment. One day, when she comes home from school, a brood of newly-hatched birds are waiting to greet her. The story then shifts to the question of how Amy, recognized by the geese as their mother, can teach them certain basic necessities of survival -- namely, how to fly and migrate. Thomas comes up with the answer: instruct Amy to pilot an ultra-light plane, then accompany her in his own craft on a 600-mile, 4-day aerial flight to North Carolina, with the geese tagging along behind.

As a family film, Fly Away Home has something for members of every temperament and age group: adventure, pathos, technical detail about the design of the aircraft, cute animals, and human drama. On the other hand, Fly Away Home could be accused of attempting too much, and, as a result, shortchanging its best dramatic material (Amy and her father's developing relationship). There's a subplot involving attempts to clip the birds' wings, a look at how the media covers Amy's flight, and a sequence where Amy and Thomas' crafts are mistaken for UFOs by the U.S. military. There's also a pro-conservation message that, while laudable in intent, comes across as simplistic and heavy-handed (land developers = bad; geese = good).

For the first time in her short career, Oscar-winner Anna Paquin gets a shot at playing a relatively-normal, contemporary teenager. However, while her tendency towards histrionics has been an asset for the period pieces she has appeared in (The Piano, Jane Eyre), there are times when it is jarring in a movie like Fly Away Home. When she's quiet and reflective, Paquin is excellent; but there are too many instances when she goes overboard. Playing opposite her are two subdued performers: Jeff Daniels, who makes a sympathetic (although not dynamic) Dad, and Dana Delany as his girlfriend. While Daniels has something to do, Delany is pretty much relegated to the background, although, in the wake of Exit to Eden and Live Nude Girls, it's a little odd to see her in such a "tame" role.

Director Carroll Ballard, who brought 1979's The Black Stallion to the screen, has long since proven his ability to produce solid family fare. This time around, he has used the true-life experiences of scientist Bill Lishman as his inspiration. Lishman's life's work has been devoted to saving endangered species of birds, and the migration experiment shown in the film is drawn from trips that actually happened. Ballard uses this as the backdrop for a warm drama that's more about love and trust between a father and daughter than inter-species connections. The result, even for geese-haters, is charming.

Fly Away Home (United States, 1996)

Director: Carroll Ballard
Cast: > Anna Paquin, Jeff Daniels, Dana Delany, Terry Kinney, Holter Graham, Jeremy Ratchford
Screenplay: Robert Rodat and Vince McKewin
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
Music: Mark Isham
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 1996-09-13
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1