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Review: The Big Year DVD

BigYearPosterEditor's Note: Would you like to help the ABA and get a FREE copy of the the DVD or Blu-ray of The Big Year? Details will be available soon. You can mail [email protected] to be notified the instant this offer goes live!

On Friday, I got a sneak peek preview of the soon-to-be-released DVD of the movie The Big Year. Whether or not you liked the movie in the theater, it will still be worth taking a look at the extended version, in which narration by John Cleese, used on and off throughout, changes the entire tone of the movie, giving it the feel of a BBC nature special. The extended version starts with Cleese talking about birds in the jungles of the Yucatán, including one female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. He returns to this particular hummingbird in April as she heads out over the Gulf of Mexico and then hits a fierce storm—this starts off the whole sequence of activities dealing with the migration fall-out. The movie ends by tying up the loose ends for each of the main characters, including the hummingbird.

Cleese’s narration throughout fills in useful details about birds and birding, and adds a cool note of ironic detachment as he talks about the “North American Programmer,” the “CEO,” and the “Reigning King” as if they were curious species he was watching through his binoculars.

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird used for these segments was generated by computer, but somehow it better tied together the brief uses of a CGI Xantus’s Hummingbird, Great Spotted Woodpecker, and Great Gray Owl in the theatrical release. There were also more maps and interesting graphics, in line with a BBC nature special. This made the flyover scene in the Aleutian Islands using arrows to point out which birds were seen where fit in better with the overall movie style.

I liked the movie a lot to begin with, and like this extended version even more. My husband Russ and son Tom preferred the original. Tom thought the Cleese narration was distracting. Russ liked how when the characters did voiceovers in the other version, it gave the viewer a better feel for Jack Black’s and Steve Martin’s characters, but he agreed with me that the Cleese narration provided a lot more information about birds, birding, and birders.  

The one thing both versions of the movie get entirely wrong is that the birders test one another’s ability to recognize calls, not by using recordings but by making imitations. There is no way a birder would be expected to recognize some of the calls as imitated by a mere human larynx. And nowadays except for owl calling, virtually no birders ever imitate birds to draw them in—it’s too easy to use an iPhone or other tiny device to play actual bird recordings. Flammulated Owls are extremely secretive and entirely nocturnal, so It seemed rather ridiculous for a birder to be imitating one in mid-day, much less clearly expecting it to respond. And Jack Black’s lame imitation of a Great Gray Owl drove me nuts, because the deep, resonant quality of a real Great Gray isn’t that hard to match—even I can do it.

I was disappointed in the theater to see that the credits had Lang Elliott’s name misspelled—he was one of the people who supplied bird recordings used in the movie. I was doubly disappointed that they didn’t correct this for the DVD, but am hoping this was an oversight in the preview that they’ll fix in for the actual DVD release.

Other than these picky details, the movie was lots of fun, and birders being the contentious group that we are, having two different versions on the DVD should spur on a debate that will last until the next birding movie comes out.

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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson has been in love with birds since she was a small child. She started birding after she received binoculars and a field guide for Christmas in 1974. Since then, her philosophy of life has been that “no one should go through life listlessly,” and she’s devoted herself to promoting the love, understanding, and protection of birds. She’s served as science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, rehabbed wild birds for over two decades, written five books about birds, contributed to Audubon, Birding, and BirdWatching magazine, and for the past 25 years has produced, as an unpaid volunteer for several community radio stations, a daily radio spot about birds podcast at Laura lives with an Eastern Screech-Owl licensed for education as well as her amazingly tolerant non-birder husband.
  • Deaf Birder

    Is “the Big Year” captioned or subtled?? Fingers crossed. I have been so antsy to see it after reading positive reviews about it. For sure, I am one of the last ones having not seen it.

  • Yes, in my preview DVD, the Setup for both the theatrical release and extended versions allows you to choose “Subtitled for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.” I just checked both versions and it works.

  • rick wright

    Next birding movie? Do you think there’ll be one?

  • Robert Kyse

    If irreverence is applauded, perhaps a viral video or two.

    Note to ABA: When will we sponsor the first film / video festival? What would the trophy name be called – perhaps the “Pisher”?

  • Will there be a “next birding movie”? Considering it’s been almost half a century since The Birds was released, I think on that time scale there will certainly be a “next.” Maybe not in my lifetime, but a girl can dream.

  • Andrew Haffenden

    Winged Migration, Kes, Chicken Run(well, they’re birds) immediately come to mind, not birding but about birds. Can we count the Angry Birds movie coming up? Happy Feet?

  • Deaf Birder

    Don’t forget “Rare Bird” featuring Michael Caine.

  • It’s tricky to define a movie about birding. The only character in The Birds that was remotely a birder was the very domineering (and in many ways inaccurate) “ornithologist.” Rare Birds starred William Hurt. I’ll have to watch it again, but it seemed to be pretty crappy first time I saw it. Chicken Run was about domestic birds, and I don’t think any character was even remotely a birder.

    I loved Winged Migration, but it’s about the birds themselves, not about birding (though the documentary about the making of it was pretty cool from an actual birding point of view). Happy Feet is also focused on the birds themselves rather than birding, and I personally don’t like movies that feel it necessary to cute-ify birds. I’m not sure that the eternal battle between birds and pigs necessarily fits either a natural history or a birding theme , but I know I’ll enjoy seeing it, at least once. I’m not familiar with Kes–will have to check it out.

  • Ron Cyger

    Rare Bird features William Hurt. And, it’s a very fun move, too!

  • Suellen

    What about The Kestrel’s eye?

  • Bonnie

    The Kestrel’s Eye is excellent-I discovered it years ago on a speciality movie rental site that sadly went out of business. The movie I think is available on DVD.

    As for Rare Bird, it’s OK, on the silly side, I thought.

  • “Pelican Blood.”

    I haven’t seen the movie, but the book was one of my all-time favorites.

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