Eli is standing by the side of my bed in his pjs, clutching his patch blanket, Little Blue Bear, Moosie, and his small pottery train engine. He is angling for some Saturday morning television. “Let’s watch the goose movie again, Mama!”
“Yeah!” adds Ben, walking down the hall, “Let’s watch the goose movie!”
“Do you want to watch any of the story,” I ask groggily, “or just the geese and planes?”
“Geese and planes!” they chorus happily, “Geese and planes!”
The “goose movie” is the lovely Fly Away Home (Carroll Ballard, 1996), which is about a young teenager, Amy (Anna Paquin), whose mother is killed in a car accident and who is sent to live with the father she barely remembers. Their awkward relationship warms up when Amy rescues a dozen or so goose eggs (their nest was bulldozed by developers) and the newly-hatched baby geese imprint on Amy. The goslings are adorable, but wild geese don’t make good pets. The birds need to learn how to fly — and then to migrate — in order to live freely. So Amy and her dad, Tom (Jeff Daniels), set out to teach them.
That’s when we start watching the movie. I don’t need my little boys to watch the opening scene’s car crash, artfully filmed though it is. They don’t need to worry about the early, uncomfortable days between the grieving Amy, her unaccustomed-to-parenting dad and his well-meaning girlfriend (Dana Delaney), even though the scenes are sensitive and well-written. When the boys are a little older, we will watch the movie from the beginning, because its quiet first half, establishing relationships grounded in Tom’s house and the surrounding land, is beautifully done. But for now, I start the movie when it takes to the air because around here, we do love anything that flies.
These days, I’ve grown accustomed to picking my way down the hall without stubbing my toe on the small metal airplanes, lined up and ready for take-off. Lego rockets stand on a wooden launch pad in the boys’ bedroom and outside, long strings of fishing line stretch from the back porch down to a chair in the backyard, waiting for a sunny day and more experiments in aeronautics. Eli learned how to count backwards by reciting rocket launches, and Ben is preparing a package of airplane designs to send to the kind folks at Boeing. Airport delays, even a recent midnight-till-three-AM stint, are celebrated by this pair of junior aviators. We read astronaut biographies and picture books about kid fliers like Violet the Pilot; we study David Macaulay’s diagrams of airplanes, and when it’s time for a break from flying machines, we turn to Penguin Post, Make Way for Ducklings, and The Trumpet of the Swan. Fly Away Home‘s combination of birds and planes couldn’t be more perfect for my kids right now.
The planes come from Amy’s dad, an inventor. Tom’s home is filled with gadgets like his circular refrigerator that opens by rising vertically in a cloud of swirling frost, and the growling monster-head soap dispensers he’s installed in the shower. He’s constructed a model of the lunar lander, he welds giant metal sculptures in the barn, and in his spare time he flies a hang glider powered by a lawnmower engine. It might all be charming for a child younger than Amy (it certainly delights my children), but to a thirteen year-old who’s just lost her mom, it’s just a little too weird. So Amy, who is quiet and independent, but not fragile, keeps to herself, exploring the surrounding woods; when she finds the eggs, she gathers them up and hides them in a forgotten chest of drawers out in the barn. Her father’s daughter, she rigs up a lightbulb to warm an improvised nest of her mom’s old silk scarves. When the eggs all hatch, she brings the goslings into the house and delegates her dad to care for them while she’s off at school.
Of course Amy and Tom need the baby geese as much as the birds need them. The pair starts to connect over the care of the young flock, and unites against a game warden who wants to clip their wings and render them flightless. Tom convinces Amy that rather than hiding the birds in the barn, they need to teach them to migrate. Here, the movie takes its plot loosely from the real-life experiences of Bill Lishman, a Canadian inventor, artist, and ultralight aircraft hobbyist who thought that if he could teach a flock of birds to migrate by following a plane, he might eventually be able to reestablish flocks of endangered birds like the whooping crane. The company he co-founded, Operation Migration, continues to guide birds through their first migration and has helped gradually increase the numbers of wild whooping cranes.
What takes years in real life moves quickly and easily in the film. My boys and I laugh at Tom’s first awkward attempts to get the geese to follow him; he builds a goose-shaped skirt for himself and runs around the field honking his funny goose-call. The birds follow him on the ground, but won’t fly after his plane. So Amy sneaks into the plane and takes off on her own. She manages a short, sputtering ride before crashing into a field. Amy’s dad, worried that she’s killed herself, cries when he realizes she’s okay; that development pleases Amy even more than the realization that the geese have finally flown. They have followed her.
Flying lessons for both Amy and the geese follow – they need to develop their endurance for the long flight from Southern Ontario to a wetland in South Carolina. The pace of the film quickens slightly as flight logistics are planned, but never gets bogged down – the filmmakers indulge us with long, beautifully quiet scenes of Amy and Tom, now flying separate ultralight planes, leading the flock across the countryside. The film is nicely book-ended when we learn that the southern habitat selected for the flock is under threat of development, just like the flock’s nesting grounds. Crowds gather on the beach around a bulldozer, chanting and waving signs as they await Amy’s arrival.
Ben and Eli watch, rapt, as Amy lands with the flock, and then before the credits roll they leap off the couch and run to the art table. They grab markers and paper to start work on the latest designs for Ben and Eli Airlines. Meanwhile, I sit on the couch, tears rolling down my cheeks. For me it’s not just a flock of geese who’ve made a graceful migration, but a child and her dad. Someday, they will understand.