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Film review: Fly Away Home

Published: Tuesday, July 27 2004 10:45 a.m. MDT

Carroll Ballard is sort of the Stanley Kubrick of scenic motion pictures — he only makes a movie every blue moon or so, which makes it difficult to determine whether he's actually in a slump. His most recent films were the flops "Wind," four years ago, and the dull "Nutcracker, The Motion Picture" (1986).

But he did have a stunning pair of films in the early 1980s, "The Black Stallion" and "Never Cry Wolf."

So, with "Fly Away Home" marking a return to a nature-oriented subject, and a re-teaming with his "Black Stallion" cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, it's only natural to have high hopes.

But "Fly Away Home" is another semi-misfire, despite the fact that the film's third act is quite stunning as a father and daughter in homemade airplanes teach orphaned geese how to migrate. The rest of the film, though beautifully composed and shot, is overly familiar coming-of-age stuff, and Oscar-winner Anna Paquin is less than mesmerizing as the star.

Paquin plays 14-year-old Amy, a New Zealand girl whose mother is killed in an automobile accident. Still grieving, she is none too happy about being forced to move back in with her father (Jeff Daniels), an eccentric Canadian inventor.

He's never been much of a father, and he has no idea how to reach out to Amy, despite assistance from his extremely patient girlfriend (Dana Delaney) and his helpful, if goofy, brother (Terry Kinney).

Soon, evil developers ravage the land near their home and Amy discovers a gaggle of orphaned goose eggs. With a makeshift incubator, she watches them hatch, and as the goslings imprint with her, she becomes their surrogate mother.

An evil wildlife officer wants to render the birds flightless, but Dad chases him off, and after a time, father and daughter come up with a plan to teach the birds how to migrate.

But there's a time crunch. If they don't get the birds from their Ontario farm to the marshland they've staked out in North Carolina in time, another evil developer will take over that land.

Naturally, the race against time goes right down to the wire. Guess who wins?

Actually, the predictability of all this might be more palatable if the characters were better developed or more appealing. Paquin is a rather mannered young actress, and she plays much of this as an annoying brat. (And what's with the nose ring that shows up for the film's second half?) Daniels is good, but isn't able to give his character much dimension, and everyone else is standard issue.

Worse, however, are the villains. The film actually might have worked better without so many nasty bad guys. The wildlife official is particularly over the top — he actually breaks into privately owned cages on private property in the middle of the night to steal the geese!

Still, the film's final third is pretty powerful stuff, with gorgeous cinematography complementing the images of orphaned wild geese being forced to learn how to migrate. During this lengthy sequence, there are some visual moments that really soar.

And for some, that will be enough.

"Fly Away Home" is rated PG for a couple of profanities.