Like the goslings that struggle time and time again to lift off the ground and take flight, so too does Fly Away Home take its time to get going properly. But once it does, it transforms into a beautiful fantasy tale about a little girl, her dad, and their single-minded goal to get a flock of little geese from the farmlands of Canada to the warmer climate of southern Florida.
How they achieve this is ingenious, though the movie sidesteps certain logistical obstacles, most glaring of which is navigation. The father in the story, Tom Alden (Jeff Daniels), a kind of modern day Da Vinci, has built an ultralight aerial glider. He also welds together metallic dinosaur sculptures and invents an array of quirky appliances (his prized possession is an exact replica of the lunar landing pod, the original of which he claims is still parked on the moon). With this glider, he aims to fly, geese in tow, down a route that should theoretically lead the birds to their warmer haven. Also theoretical is their return journey, which he says will bring them right back to his front porch.
His daughter, the introverted but plucky Amy (Anna Paquin), discovers the goslings as abandoned eggs after a patch of forest is razed by corporate bulldozing. As the movie opens, Amy is involved in a car crash in New Zealand. The crash kills her mother and leaves her with Tom, the estranged father who lives in Canada and never comes to visit because “New Zealand’s really far away”. Some of these early scenes are laborious and awkward — Amy has a shower incident that I am sure occurs less often than the movie suggests — and they spend way too much time setting up characters to be integral to the plot only to have them fade into periphery by the end.
Once the eggs hatch though, and the house is littered with about a dozen fluffy birds, it becomes clear that maybe Fly Away Home’s central characters are not the humans. I wasn’t expecting to be drawn to these goslings, but heaven forbid, they are as adorable as polar bear cubs, just as playful and in need of affection. We first see them newly hatched. By the end they’ve become fully grown adolescents. It’s like we’ve tracked their growth and matured with them. The result is emotionally similar to growing up with your pet dog.
Amy becomes the mother goose (ho ho), and before long they draw Tom, his girlfriend Susan (Dana Delany), his brother David (Terry Kinney), and his friend Barry (Holter Graham) in too. They drop everything and focus on the birds, which isn’t always the most practical thing to do. But hey, in a movie about animals, it’s the only thing to do.
Paquin, roughly 14, and just coming off an Oscar grab for her supporting role in Jane Campion’s The Piano, goes further with Amy’s awkward inwardness than with her Kiwi accent. At times I thought she was mentally ill, but then I thought maybe it was her way of coping with tragic loss. She fails to respond to the attempts of Tom, and seeks solace in an outlet that provides no talkback, no arguments, and above all, no rules. The geese for her are like a doorway to independence and a basin for her grief. She’s not very effective in moments of poignancy, but once she takes to the air, the smile on her pixie face is priceless.
With every movie that revolves around the saving of hapless animals, there must be a villain. Here we get a park ranger who teaches kids about the sanctity of life and the preservation of Mother Nature, but in a move not unlike that of Cruella de Vil’s, he sneaks into the Alden household and steals the geese on the grounds that once they mature, they’ll be a menace to society. This guy doesn’t quite cut it for me. He seems force fed into the plot by the script, which dictates the need for such an opposing force. Why not let Amy and the geese fly to freedom unobstructed? I was moved to tears by Amy’s endeavour, and by the fierce devotion her birds have for her. Why ruin it with crummy underhanded villainy? And what’s with the scene at the military airbase?
Still, Fly Away Home contains a lovely story. It educates in a subtle way. It teaches kids that not all birds need to be dead on our plates to be admired and relished. There is majesty yet to be found in the wild. Amy knew this the moment she laid eyes on the eggs. Tom knew this the moment Amy knew it. Sometimes it doesn’t take intimate dinners and lavish gifts to bond with estranged family members. Sometimes all it takes are a few geese, and your life is set.
Best Moment | Amy’s first flight with the geese.
Worst Moment | When the geese are stolen.