"I'm in love with the film The Crimson Wing, which is the
most fascinating and involving nature documentary I've
seen in years."
Hannah McGill, Artistic Director
The Edinburgh Film Festival
For all you lucky folks at the 2009 Edinburgh Film Festival (going on as I type), you're the only ones able to see this movie as yet. There're no UK distribution dates on the IMDB (though the filmmakers inform me that a release is planned for 24th September but as yet it's unknown how wide) so if you're lauding it with the stars under that extraordinary castle, put these dates in your diaries; 25th and 26th June. For the rest of us, we'll just have to wait a little longer.
There are very few filmmakers who emerge from the spacious corporate maw of The Walt Disney Company with their artistic credentials held high – unless they are affiliated with Pixar that is. Disney has had a reputation in the past for weighty executive... uh, let's say 'active partnership' or the 'Katzenberg Syndrome' (ask Aardman's Nick Park what that might mean). Yes, it's their money but when homogenisation began to choke the company like a bad stench, the rot set in. Those more like the artists who started in Disney's hey day making breathtaking films like Pinocchio and Fantasia suddenly weren't welcome anymore unless they toed the party line and churned out demographically acceptable please-all pap. Creative talent is a curious animal. In Hollywood it is highly prized (and highly priced) and then ground into the grit with a steel heel if that talent doesn't translate into box office returns. Nobody knows what's going to work and if you're spending millions, then as an exec, you'll place as many safety nets under yourself as possible. There's a good reason that, according to cliché originated by Jean-Luc Picard (sorry, Godard), all you needed to make a movie was a gun and a girl. There are no guns or girls in The Crimson Wing but the chicks are as cute as the hell they're hatched into.
Disney is in the business of business and the 'show' part often gets trampled in the search for the next Lion King. I often felt that Pixar's phenomenal success (which continues with Up) was despite Disney's marketing power not because of it. I never got the impression that Pixar and Disney were ever happy bedfellows and the separation of their output, despite John Lassiter's new found clout from within the House of Mouse, continues. This says a lot. Bolt wasn't a bad movie but a kind of hybrid falling between two stools. It is virtually impossible for any company to keep churning out hits (apparently not in Pixar's case) and it's their storytelling care and reliance on creative artists that keeps that flag flying. There's a unity to their work that's lacking in Disney's own output and I'm glad to say unity of voice is something that emerges, no, flies gracefully from The Crimson Wing.
So what if you're two independent filmmakers with an exquisite idea that seems impossible to put into words, let alone a script to be pored over by executives whose job it is to know how to make films that make money. They had the animal (a flamingo) and they had the stunning location (Lake Natron in Tanzania) but they were more ambitious. They wanted to capture an almost philosophical meditation on our place in the world as drawn from the glorious imagery of nature at her most startling. These are big ideas and having been involved in the lead up to the shoot, I was convinced their ideas would turn, naturally, into March of the Flamingos. It's what Disney does, looks for ideas that espouse the fundamentals of the lowest common denominator. It's the 'witness the love one bird has for its chick' approach so we could all go "aaah" and pretend they weren't trying to get the successful March of the Penguins to hold on a one-armed bandit jackpot.
I'm sure the filmmakers felt the pressure (no, I'm absolutely certain) and I'm sure it was a 'difficult' juggling feat keeping everyone happy (or at least on board) with the other ideas that they desperately wanted to weave in to their film. Movies aren't art per se but they can aspire to that plateau so it's all the more remarkable to me that Crimson Wing is actually more than the sum of its commercially minded parts. It's contemplative and provoking and name me the last film Disney had anything to do with that you could say that about? When BBC's Planet Earth aired in the States, the Disney CEO Robert Iger was knocked out and went straight to the BBC to start a feature Disney Nature strand so at least he could feel they were giving the world something of worth instead of Hannah Montana: Why Does Nobody Twig? and High School Musical: The Wilderness Years. The Crimson Wing was the first commissioned for the Disney Nature strand.
Directors Matt Aeberhard and Leander Ward, through a no doubt tortuous and serpentine route of funding-finding, ended up in the Mouse's lap. Despite a great many commercially-minded odds against them, the pair has produced something rather special. The synopsis does it no justice at all, 'the life cycle of a flamingo'. There. Not hard to pressure that many words into an ad campaign. But this is not just 'the life cycle of a flamingo' in the same sense that any painted work of art is just coloured paint on a canvas. True but unhelpful. It's the emotional texture, the discrete infiltration of ideas and philosophy that surprised me in the best way. Here were two guys who always failed to tell me what their movie was actually about because they had to make it first to show me. I got it.
It's sublime but you have to go into it with very different eyes. Leave those BBC Natural World peepers at the door and open yourself up for an experience not a lesson. You have to allow it to live outside the frame and take in the bigger ideas. This is no Attenborough education (as worthy as these are). It's more like a visual poem that leaves personal interpretations open and it's a much better work for that. It doesn't hurt that it's beautifully shot with an admirably languid pace that invites you to look at the pictures and not be anticipating the next cut. The music, by the Cinematic Orchestra, is so inherently combined with the pictures it feels like it was scored first. The script, by Melanie Finn, is a relaxingly sparse affair that doesn't hide its mission to push you to see things differently. It balances the images and the story with a witty and romantic bent. We sort of follow one chick from egg to flight but it's so much more than that – I've already used the word poetic. This enhances the film in a quiet and unfussy way. At the screening I attended, Mariella Frostrup delivered the lines (a regular Radio 4 broadcaster whose voice is cigarette-throat distinctive) and although not known as an actress, she was suitably and attractively seductive and playful.
I'm sure Hannah McGill's praise will produce a couple of sell-outs on the 25th and 26th June but if it is released in the cinemas in the UK in a more widely distributed pattern, then treat yourself to a very different film experience. We simply cannot have enough of those. Bravo.