"Fly Away Home" (Carroll Ballard, 1996) I mentioned to a co-worker that I'd seen this movie and liked it. "What!" she gaped. "The goose movie?!"
Yes, damn it, "the goose movie."
Based on the true efforts of naturalists who imprint orphaned geese how to migrate, it's been shapoed into a fun, odd movie that imprints young minds with a story of responsibility while creating a film with the same sense of wonder, but a little less of the austerity that Ballard brought to the 1985 "The Black Stallion" and 1990's "Never Cry Wolf."
Fairweather father Tom Alden (Jeff Daniels) flies to New Zealand where his daughter (Anna Paquin) and ex-wife have been involved in a car accident that kills the mother. Alden takes the traumatized Amy back to his Canadian farm, where he continues his experiments in perfecting ultra-light gliders and activism for protecting the surrounding wild-lands from developers. An early bulldozing of green-space disturbs a nest of geese, and Amy takes the eggs and oversees their hatching.
But geese are odd ducks. Amy being the first human they see, the goslings assume she's their mother, and so she feeds, cleans, exercises and cares for the birds, to the grudging acceptance of her father and girlfriend (Dana Delany). "Imprinting" goes both ways. The geese are stuck on Amy, and she is devoted to them. This runs them afoul of the local game warden who insists that their wings be clipped to prevent them from flying off during migratory season. See, geese learn the paths from their parents...and orphaned geese...well, their proverbial goose is cooked.
Horrified, Amy and her father hatch a plan to imprint the migration path on the geese by piloting a pair of powered ultra-kights from Canada to the sunnier climes of Florida. First, Amy must learn to fly. Then, they have to coax the birds to follow her ultra-light. Then...well, the task has all the potential catastrophes as a "Mission: Impossible" plot. Experts are skeptical. The air-space is restricted. The flights unauthorized. One of the geese is injured. But, as they say, the plan is so crazy, it...just...could...work.
Freely adapted from Bill Lishman's book and own experiences imprinting new migratory paths on geese and whooping cranes, it's one of those perfect children's movies that doesn't speak down to kids, keeps them engaged, and gives them something to get excited about, while also keeping adults intellectually enthralled rather than insulted. And Ballard and his "Black Stallion" cinematographer—the gifted Caleb Deschanel—brings that same eye for the beautiful image and the defining detail that have made his other films engaging studies of man's relationship to Nature.
At the same time the film is a coming-of-age film of a child coping with the death of a parent by becoming one and fighting for the life of her new charges. Finally, it is also a film of letting go for human beings and for birds, of letting Nature takes it course and trusting in lessons taught. It's one the whole family can enjoy.