Flight of Fancy Review: Beautiful photography, fine acting and the do-good aspects of the venture don't quite erase the undercurrents of unease parents may experience watching "Fly Away Home."

September 13, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

It's a bird! It's a plane! Er, actually it's both a bird and a plane and it's the heart of "Fly Away Home."

As an examination of the metaphorical possibilities of flight, "Fly Away Home" is a soaring experience. In its beautiful confines, flight is freedom, it's nature, it's escape, it's family love, it's mastery of the universe, it's compassion, it's heroism. This baby makes you feel good about being human all over again.

Fictionalized from a much less dramatic avian migratory experimental project, the story has been blown up and lashed to the armature of a familiar formula, the one about the dysfunctional family healed by its involvement in a cause bigger than its own world: It's the tale of a man and his daughter who tell some geese where to go -- south, to the Carolinas -- and thereby save their own souls.

It seems that migratory birds aren't born with an instinct for direction; they must be imprinted with that info by their parents, which becomes the full-time occupation of the Aldens.

An artist and inventor, Tom (Jeff Daniels) doesn't make the best kind of dad: He's the work-obsessed, narcissistic, artistic type, whose inner life is much more amusing than his outer one, which he almost never notices. Some kind of animal sculptor, he makes a handsome living fabricating fantastic metal beasts on his farm-studio in Ontario.

When his divorced wife is killed in New Zealand, his surviving daughter comes to live with him, which explains Anna Paquin's accent in the role.

But nothing else needs to be explained: Paquin, a brilliant performer as she proved in "The Piano," captures exactly the difficult little girl's texture -- whip-smart but isolated, she needs an emotional center in her new and newly bereft world, and Dad, off welding dragons in the barn, is of very little help. But one day she recovers -- the melodrama here is trying -- some unhatched goose eggs left by evil cruel nasty ugly mean rotten crummy lousy stinky and poo-poo developers (shudder! the bulldozer has become the panzer of the green '90s!). They hatch: They look about and see her; presto, she's a mom!

Tom notices his daughter's immediate engagement in the birds and takes heart from it and soon tolerates the dozen rapidly growing honkers honking messily (if you know what I mean and I think you do) around his kitchen.

But problems quickly develop: The crown insists that the birds be rendered land creatures by trimming their wings, and if Amy won't permit it, Tom can't permit it. Thus, he has but one choice: That's to teach the little fuzzy-wuzzy dummies to fly south.

A lot of "Fly Away Home" is routine melodrama hooked to lame contrivance. Tom just happens to be a terrifically clever guy who can easily afford and has the skill to build ultralight planes -- you know, those frail kites with lawn-mower engines. (Look for Friends School grad Holter Graham in a small role as a fellow ultralight enthusiast.)

Tom just happens to have an equally brilliant brother who knows the world's foremost expert on bird migration and can lay out a flight plan in a trice. Amy just happens to have the natural talent and sheer guts it takes to learn how to pilot one of the tiny planes, essential since the geese have bonded to her, not Tom. The authorities have decided to confiscate the geese exactly as Tom and Amy have mastered the machines and set the plan in motion. On and on it goes, clacking wheezily.

But, as directed by ace pictorialist Carroll Ballard and photographed by the superb cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (they collaborated on "The Black Stallion" and "Never Cry Wolf" as well), the purity and glee of defying gravity like a bird has never seemed more palpable and liberating. The little craft don't go high or far, but their very aeronautical limits make them seem almost alive themselves, little skittering ladybugs that cling to the surface of the Earth even as they skim over rooftops and lakes, the geese flappity-flapping along in tight formation behind.

The movie does have a dark undercurrent which it seems quite unwilling to recognize, even if most parents in the audience will feel queasy about it. That is: This dad does push his daughter very far, very fast, putting her life in danger, all for a bunch of geese who weren't going to have to die anyhow, but only live happily as farm pets. It's taking the green impulse a bit far, isn't it: I mean, aren't we really talking about risking lives in service to a goose-potential movement? What's next? Goose aromatherapy? At some point, the mission goes so far it becomes more than a mission but an obsession. I could not but think of Jessica Dubroff, the 7-year-old pushed by her father to break the tot-pilot coast-to-coast record who ended up dead in a Wyoming snowdrift. Would you let your daughter fly solo in a kite over Lake Ontario for the sake of 12 geese? Not this dad. That's what axes are for, my friend.

'Fly Away Home'

Starring Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin

Directed by Carroll Ballard

Released by Columbia

Rated: PG

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 9/13/96

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