Review by Russell D. Hoffman of Fly Away Home

Review by Russell D. Hoffman of film Fly Away Home

From Sony Pictures Entertainment

Reviewed September 30th, 1996

Review by Russell D. Hoffman with notes about his childhood experiences regarding imprinting

Copyright (c) 1996 by Russell D. Hoffman.

Fly Away Home is about a young girl (played by Anna Paquin) who imprints some lost goslings (young Canadian Geese) to her. Imprinting is a behavioral process, and usually the first thing a gosling sees is it's mother, and that's what they become imprinted to. These goslings become imprinted to the young girl. She raises them, and then learns to fly an ultralight airplane so that she can fly south with the birds when they get old enough, because otherwise they won't leave the farmlands. She flys from Canada to North Carolina, USA to teach the birds the route to a winter nesting place.

Her father is fully supportive of the endeavor and she gets a lot of other help along the way. It's a story about making dreams come true, and about stubbornly refusing to quit. It's a story about bonding, not just for the goslings but for just about everyone this charming young actress comes in contact with in the movie. Not everyone, but just about everyone.

The photographs of the birds in flight are stunning. The soundtrack is unobtrusive yet moving, and it includes some real power hitters in the music business.

Although FLY AWAY HOME is clearly for children, it is interesting for adults as well. There are even a few jokes just for the adults, but nothing the children can't hear, they just won't get them.

Very few scenes are wasted as various aspects of the story are covered, from the techniques needed to cojole the birds into the air, to the politics of land use. I do wish they had explained a little about what it means to 'stall' an airplane, especially at low altitude.

Before I finish reviewing this film, let me give you my background.

It's not often you get to see a film that is so personal. I remember as a youth, going to visit my father's lab. It was the 60's and 70's. My father was at that time a professor at Penn State University. (Later, at Bryn Mawr College.) He did research on Imprinting, using ducklings, which are little furballs (actually featherballs) very similar to goslings. He trained them to peck a button so they could see an object they had been imprinted to shortly after hatching. He had a big old converted house on campus for a lab, and he had lots of grad students and walls and walls of equipment.

I now realize that those were basically hard-wired computers. They consisted of rack upon rack of counters, relays, printers, timers, and other components, all connected together by a huge rat's nest of wires on the back. All to record the patterns of animal behavior.

A most amazing sound...

All the equipment made one of the most beautiful and amazing noises I've ever heard. In fact, the only more beautiful sound that I can think of is one time when I saw--and heard--a busboy try to take a double-stacked tray full of 'tumblers' down a flight a stairs, and dropped them all right at the topmost stair. Such a complex, crystal noise! It went on and on as the tumblers tumbled down the flight of stairs. He must of broke all 60 or 75 or so of them!

Clickety-Clickety-Clickety-Clickety does not begin to describe the noise from my father's lab! It was click upon click upon click all happening all at once and at a million different other times, in a cacaphony so loud that you could hear it coming down from the third floor as you approached the building. Not a roar, as no individual click was particularly loud, but a constant yet irregular background noise that demanded one's attention yet filled the background perfectly. When only one duckling was being run, which sometimes happened, the noise became an occasional and irregular set of clicks, and you could tell exactly when the duckling was pecking at the buttons.

It was a beautiful noise. It always meant there were ducklings tapping on buttons in soundproof rooms right next to the racks and rat's nests of wires. If you came in and the lab room was silent, you knew the grad students were almost always busy either fixing something or building a new experiment. In either case, they were busy. When the noise was there, they were usually just monitoring the experiments and you could distract them more, which of course is what a ten-year-old wants to do.

The soundproof rooms were connected to the electronics lab room by thick wads of cables, through a small cutout in the walls.

Inside the soundproof rooms, mini sound-proofed cages each held usually one duckling, though occasionally they experimented with multiple ducklings in each cage. They monitored the ducklings with remote T.V. cameras and some very devoted graduate students with lots of coffee.

There was, on a lower floor, a roomful of ducklings who were not being experimented with at the time, and of course, there was a hatchery as well. The air in these rooms were filled with the sound of peeps. I suppose the air was filled with certain smells, as well, but that I remember less vividly. But maybe that's why he got a whole building for himself...

Needless to say, visiting my Dad's lab was a highlight of my youth. It was a charming place for a ten year old and knowing this whole thing was designed, built and run by my Dad made me think he was just about the most important person in the world. He did not harm the ducklings in any way that I could see, nor can I think of any significant way now. It was just good science. When the ducklings matured beyond their usefulness in the experiment they were given to a farm. Hopefully they had good memories of simply clicking a button every time they wanted to see their "mother".

Their mother was a milk bottle

Usually the bottle was mounted on an HO-gauge model train engine on a short length of track (about two yard's (2 meter's) worth.) The duckling would press the button, and a light would illuminate the milk bottle and move it back and forth for a few seconds. Sometimes the button would only work intermittently. Sometimes the train would run for shorter or longer or intermittant lengths of times. Sometimes the bird did not have to press the button to see it, the milk bottle would just appear at 'random' times.

And those birds loved those milk bottles. They would chase that thing back and forth along the screen which separated them from it (for their safety), they would peep (a known sign of distress in most baby birds) when 'denied' the chance to view the milk bottle. Efforts were made to make the milk bottle look like a duck, but it didn't seem to matter to the ducklings and it was a lot easier just to use the milk bottles.

Exactly how often, and to what degree, the ducklings would 'respond' to the 'stimulus'--well, that's what the science was all about. Social bonding and imprinting are powerful phenomena. (If you are interested in learning more about this fascinating science, then I suggest you get a copy of my father's book, cited below.)

See The Movie

Fly Away Home is based on real science, and is also based on a real event, although there were significant changes made for the sake of the story. It's not presented as being exactly what happened, but it does present the science factually. For this, my father and I are grateful.

I'm NOT saying I cried at this Movie

It's so nice to see a well-written, educational movie which is also entertaining and memorable. To have it be about what my dad did for a large portion of his career got me all choked up.

FLY AWAY HOME is a great film for everyone.

Related Material at this Web Site:
A brief explanation of IMPRINTING written by Dr. Howard S. Hoffman.

Amorous Turkeys and Addicted Ducklings: The Science of Social Bonding and Imprinting by Howard S. Hoffman
Dr. Howard S. Hoffman has written a book about his 15 years of scientific analysis of imprinting. (The work was continuously supported by THE NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF HEALTH.) This is a look back at the research and its results, as well as a description of the process of science and scientific inquiry. For non-scientists, students, and anyone interested in the imprinting phenomena.
Other Movie Reviews At This Web Site:
Rumble in the Bronx
Independence Day

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First placed online September 30th, 1996.
Last modified August 9th, 1998.
Webwiz: Russell D. Hoffman
Copyright (c) Russell D. Hoffman