Fly Away Home (1996) dir. Carroll Ballard
Starring: Anna Paquin, Jeff Daniels, Dana Delany, Terry Kinney
The notion of a ‘family film’ usually either means dumbed-down cartoonish characters like “Alvin and the Chipmunks”, retread CG-heavy mythological fantasy pictures like “The Golden Compass” or Disney Channel exploitation like Hannah Montana –certainly not films that play to an age above the children who beg their parents to see them.
This is what makes “Fly Away Home” a marvelous gem to be treasured and rediscovered. In addition to having all the elements that would appeal to kids, specifically an independent young girl equaling or besting adults with hordes of cute animals playing with humans, the film is never "childish”. Director Carroll Ballard (“The Black Stallion”) executes his tone of awe-struck wonder and discovery with an artistic integrity comparable to “Days of Heaven”.
In the opening scene we meet Amy Alden, who’s just been in a car accident in New Zealand killing her mother. She wakes up half way across the earth in Canada, with her father, whom she barely knows, staring at her. Jeff Daniels, who plays her father Tom, is framed in a bold close-up, immediately expressing his warmth and compassion (a testament to Daniels’ marvelous acting skills which anchor the film). Anna Paquin, who plays young 12-year-old Amy, is a perfect match for Daniels. Fresh off her Oscar win for the "Piano", her performance is so natural its perhaps one of the most underrated child performances I’ve ever seen.
In Canada, Amy is forced to adapt to life in a new environment, with a new father and without her mother. Exploring the beautiful Eastern Ontario landscape she finds a group of neglected goose eggs, which she, unbeknownst to her father, weans into the world. When Tom and Amy discover that the government authorities have a law against domestically-raising wild birds, the duo take it upon themselves to find a way to get the geese on their natural migratory path. Tom’s knack as a hobbiest inventor and amateur pilot gives him the idea to teach the birds to migrate using his newly invented ultralight glider. Thus, Amy and Tom achieve the impossible, and fly with their adopted birds across the continental US to their migratory home in the south.
The metaphors in the recent Hannah Montana/High School Musical brand of Disney films rarely run deeper than grade school clique-ism, and so the distinct existential themes of “Fly Away Home” make it a fascinating film in the genre. Obviously the notion of the bird’s migration and finding a home far away echoes Amy’s displacement from New Zealand, and her replacement of her mother with her own maternal instincts for the geese are clear but never preached.
Caleb Deschannel whose cinematography received a deserved Oscar nomination has his stamp over the film. Deschannel who collaborated with Ballard on “The Black Stallion” brings same elegance to this picture. Same goes with Deschannel’s sense of wonder he elevated to mythic proportions in “The Natural” and “The Right Stuff”.
Alfonso Cuaron’s “A Little Princess” makes a good comparison as well – a film which got Alfonso Cuaron his “Harry Potter” gig. It’s an interesting comparison, because watching the Ballard execute his tone of awe and wonder made me think that he would have a fine choice as director of one of those movies.
"Fly Away Home" gave me a chance to look into director Carroll Ballard’s filmography. Despite a career of solid and successful films, including “The Black Stallion” (1979), “Never Cry Wolf” (1983), his output has been sparse. “Fly Away Home” comes after a 4-year absence from his last film “Wind” (1992). In all, Ballard only has six films in 30 years on his resume, an admirable career of quality over quantity. Oh yeah, he also happens to be the son of Sam Peckinpah’s legendary cinematographer Lucian Ballard, was classmates with Francis Coppola at USC, and shot second unit photography on “Star Wars”.
"Fly Away Home" is now available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment