Fly Away Home
directed by Carroll Ballard
(Columbia, 1996)

It's a Hollywood axiom that if this season's hit stars a blonde and a dog, next season's will feature two blondes and three dogs. Director Carroll Ballard has now extrapolated exponentially on that formula.

Ballard, who scored a megahit by teaming a shipwrecked boy with a black stallion in 1979, has topped himself by teaming an orphaned teen with a whole gaggle of orphaned geese. And how could it be anything but better? In many ways, Fly Away Home is strictly formula film-making.

It brings together most of the cookie-cutter elements of today's family films: A single parent, an alienated child, a threatened animal (in this case, a whole flock of them), a well-meaning but villainous bureaucrat, two not-so-well-meaning villainous developers and a forest full of tree huggers who are determined to see the gaggle of geese get a home.

The storyline is simple: 13-year-old Amy Alden (Anna Pacquin) is for all intents and purposes orphaned when she survives a car wreck that kills her mother. Her only option is to move half way around the world to live with her estranged father, Thomas Alden (Jeff Daniels), where she must learn to speak Canadian and entertain herself while dad builds sculptures the size of Lake Ontario and tries to fly his one-man gliders.

Daniels is getting nowhere with his difficult daughter until she finds the orphaned flock and he defends it from the local game warden. It's then that their relationship, and the film, take off. For Ballard has a way of investing formulas with a craft that takes them beyond craft to art. In Fly Away Home, as in The Black Stallion, it's his eye for detail and his logic in the face of all reason that push him past the mark: way past.

Tom Alden decides, based on some research into geese, that the only way Amy's flock will survive is if they succeed in migrating south for the winter. And with their mother gone, it's up to him and Amy to show them the way.

Simple solution? In theory, yes. In practice, no.

Yes, the geese are imprinted on Amy and will follow her wherever she goes. But can she fly an ultralight all the way to Virginia with a gaggle of geese in tow? Half the fun, of course, is getting there, and Ballard has way too much of it in transit, beginning with Amy's efforts to get the geese off the ground.

Add to this Ballard's eye for beauty, the fall foliage of Ontario and New York state, a theme song designed to break your heart and the absolute exhilaration of defying gravity and the bureaucracy at the same time, and you have a film that's bound to delight the senses again and again.

Fly Away Home may run a little long for the little ones, and it will most likely leave some stretch marks on your credulity. But if it's manufactured art, it's manufacturing of the highest order.

This one comes with a lifetime warranty.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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