American Birding Podcast



Review: The Big Year DVD

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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.