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The Beauty of Fly Away Home (1996): Cinematography Tells the Story

The 1996 children’s film Fly Away Home tells the story of a girl and her father teaching an orphaned flock of baby geese to follow them in aircraft in hopes of giving them a chance to live in the wild. It’s a simple story that was well-received by audiences and critics but what is most memorable is how it looks.

First, a little background. Children’s movies are typically of a singular nature, with adults mostly falling into two distinct categories, either incompetent or evil. The roots of these archetypes date back to fables and fairy tales and are omnipresent in nearly every kid’s story since, a crucial part of the learning process. Fly Away Home, about at tenacious young girl with a peculiar set of friends, doesn’t stray far from the expected, at least with character, but it does do everything else just right. This is a fun, inspiring experience for children and adults.

Fly Away Home

The story centers on Amy Alden (Anna Paquin), a 13-year-old girl from New Zealand, whose mother recently perished in a car accident. She is sent to live with her estranged father, Thomas Alden (Jeff Daniels), an artist and inventor living on a large plot of countryside near Ontario, Canada. He lives with his girlfriend (Dana Delaney) and when Amy arrives, things naturally aren’t so comfortable.

That changes when a nearby construction company, who, being adults, are greedy and unfeeling, decimate a patch of wilderness, and in the process leave a nest of Canada goose eggs without a mother. Amy collects them and allows them to incubate in an old dresser in her father’s barn. When they hatch, they imprint on Amy and by the laws of nature, follow her like they are her hatchlings. This brings the family together, but gets the attention of local game warden Glen Seifert (Jeremy Ratchford), who offers them help. But he’s an adult, and therefore ‘bad’, wanting only to clip the bird’s wings to render them flightless, a regulation for all domesticated birds. He’s only doing his job, but Amy is infuriated and Thomas kicks him off his property.

The only way to save the birds is to teach them what their real mother would do, so Thomas whips out his ultralight aircraft and takes to the sky in hopes of getting the birds to learn the migratory pattern, but of course, they won’t do it without Amy so she needs to learn how to pilot one herself.

Directed by Carroll Ballard and inspired by the real-life exploits of Bill Lishman, who a decade earlier had taught birds to follow him, Fly Away Home is an uncommon family film that isn’t preachy or overwrought despite a few lapses in logic (an Air Force base scrambles their jets when a flock of geese and two ultralights blip on their radar). Scored by Mark Isham, this is a movie with lots of contrived moments but all are handled well and never lessen the good feelings the films ultimately generates. It’s also beautifully photographed, with much of the movie told in stunning visual detail. 

The Moving Image

Caleb Deschanel (father to Emily and Zooey), began his career in film in 1969, and has been nominated for an Academy Award five times, including for The Right Stuff (1983), The Natural (1984), and The Passion of the Christ (2004). Here too he earned a well-deserved nomination, giving this family film a big-budget look, capturing the land and sky with great wonder. It would seem the story of a girl who flies with geese would lend itself naturally to great images of flight, but Deschanel isn’t content with that easy combination, instead, pulling back and giving the aerial images a life of their own, where we feel a connection with the characters and the joy it must be to fly so free. But not all of his magic is done in the air.

Look at this magnificent image from early in the film when Amy first arrives at her father’s. Clearly influenced by Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, this deeply affecting image expresses everything about Amy’s feelings of isolation and distance to her father. Without a word of description, we understand much about the character.

FLy Way 1

Here’s an earlier shot where Thomas attempts to lure Amy out of the house and find some connection with him, a breathtaking image that captures the still dominant anchor that is the house for Amy but hinting at the excitement just beyond. Look at the streams of sunlight pouring in from the right, the ultralight glimmering the rays. You’re eyes are drawn straight to it and you can’t help but want to run out of the shadows and into the light.

Fly Away Home

If you look closely at the center of this stunning image of tightly-packed community of homes, you’ll see Amy and Thomas’ ultralights and a string of geese between them. It’s a stirring shot of movement over a block of urban sprawl, the gray road and patchwork roofs like the rivers and fields they’d crossed over earlier. In motion, this is a powerful shot.

Fly Away Home

This magnificent shot is of the Ontario skyline looming over the suburbs as the ultralights and geese make their way south. The interruption of the swath of umber as the wings of the aircraft pass by is striking and gives a remarkable sense of scale of the journey ahead.

Fly Away Home

Last is this image taken as the father and daughter drop out of cloud bank and find themselves in a canyon of city skyscrapers. The massive towers of steel and concrete cut into the corners, seemingly leaning in as if closing a gap the fliers are forced to follow, yet there is still a powerful sense of awe and wonder, a quietly disjointed feeling as two worlds meet.

Fly Away Home

Great cinematography is not typically the first thing one might remember from a children’s movie, but with Fly Away Home, it has great impact on the experience. Deschanel’s photography is luminous and Ballard makes great use of the work, letting long moments pass with only images and music, drawing us in with ease. While you might walk away from Far Away Home with an appreciation for the story and interest in what inspired it, you will certainly be moved by the photography. A stunning visual achievement, children’s tale or not, this is a great movie to watch if you’re a fan of film.

Flay Away Home

Director:

Carroll Ballard

Writers:

Bill Lishman (autobiography), Robert Rodat (screenplay)

Stars:

Jeff Daniels, Anna Paquin, Dana Delany

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