Though its title suggests a Stewart Granger swashbuckler, in fact The Crimson Wing (2008) is a nature documentary about flamingos - lesser flamingos precisely, a species residing in Africa. Subtitled Mystery of the Flamingo in the ads and on the packaging but not on the film itself, it's a British-French-American co-production that first premiered in France as Les Ailes pourpres - le mystère des flamants. The maiden effort (though not the first release) of Disneynature, a Paris-based subsidiary of the Disney conglomerate set up to make nature documentaries, it is a clear effort to revive, in a way, the company's older True-Life Adventures series of the 1950s and '60s. (The new company's logo includes a glacier resembling Cinderella's castle.)
The Crimson Wing is also clearly rooted in another French-made nature documentary, March of the Penguins (2005), which this in many ways resembles. Like that film it eschews the use of maps, graphs, and talking-head interviews, focusing instead exclusively on the animals. Like March of the Penguins, there's a vaguely New Age approach to its cycle-of-life material. If you've seen the earlier film you know exactly what to expect.
However, The Crimson Wing has one thing in its favor: absolutely gorgeous photography that's a must on a big screen in high-def. At times it approaches the cinematography of Freddie Young for director David Lean's films. Disney's Blu-ray + DVD combo offers a superb transfer, plus a few less-impressive extra features.
Narrated in the English-language version by Mariella Frostrup and in the French by Zabou Breitman, the film follows the lives of lesser flamingos, from newborns and tiny chicks in Lake Natron, in northern Tanzania, through adolescence and adulthood and their migratory cycles. Some of the film (supposedly) captures the struggles of a single bird, identified only as "she" in the narration.
The Crimson Wing is definitely not for small children. Almost the entire middle-third of the film lingers on the agonizing death of many chicks. Some develop "salt shackles," steadily growing deposits of salt from the lake that become like cement shoes for the poor birds, which struggle with the added weight, growing weaker-and-weaker.
But, much worse, is the band of massive, vulture-like marabou, appropriately called "undertaker birds" and likened to the witches of fairy tales (and, by extension, Disney villains) in the narration. (Mostly though, they reminded me of the Skeksis, the evil creatures in Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal.) The marabou chase down the helpless birds and, before the unblinking camera, pecks at them to death or breaks the babies' necks by shaking them violently. Even as an adult who has seen a lot of this sort of thing, I found myself cringing through all this suffering, and was glad I didn't try watching this with my young daughter.
Though its "story" is overly familiar and, especially at the beginning and the end, gratingly New Age-y, the cinematography alone makes The Crimson Wing worth seeing. Chiefly shot by co-director and co-producer Matthew Aeberhard, it's outstanding throughout and it makes an ideal fit with the high-definition format. Its atmospheric prologue, suggestive of a prehistoric age like something out of One Million Years B.C. (1967), complete with smoldering volcano, gradually gives way to intelligently edited contrasts between epic wide angles revealing thousands of birds within the frame (around 500,000 birds converge on Lake Natron) and tight, intimate shots between mother and chick, where every feather is photographed with such razor-sharpness one really gets a sense of their texture and myriad shades of pink.
Aeberhard makes superb use of the lake's reflections, silhouettes, and heat distortion, some shots recalling Omar Sharif's introduction in Lawrence of Arabia. The beauty of these strange birds is maximized. For instance, in zoos one rarely gets the chance to see these birds fly, but here we see the beauty of their flight (and graceful landings). The film rarely cuts away from the birds, but other shots of spider webs, grass, other species of birds, etc. are equally impressive.
Video & Audio
The region "A"-encoded The Crimson Wing has multiple menu options, in English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, and Portuguese. Shot on 35mm film for 1.85:1 theatrical screenings, the 1080p image is outstanding, as detailed above. The two-disc set includes a standard-def DVD disc of the film as well.
The audio is fine if less exceptional, with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio (48kHz/24-bit), French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital and - this impressed me - English descriptive audio. Subtitles are available in all three languages also.
Supplements are limited to a multi-part behind the scenes documentary, Lake Natron Diaries that unfortunately was mastered in standard-def (though presented in high-def on the Blu-ray) with a 4:3 LBX image at 1.78:1, resulting in large black bars on all four sides of the 16:9 frame.
Living Planet, an interactive feature, is somewhat better, giving users the option of selecting various parts of the globe that in turn trigger short, picture-in-picture interviews about the world's "hot spots." More picture-in-picture material turns up in a Filmmakers Annotations track. Also included is a Crimson Wing screensaver, plus the usual glut of Disney previews and FBI warnings.
Definitely not for younger children or, for that matter, sensitive, bird-loving adults, The Crimson Wing is nonetheless informative and boasts much extraordinary cinematography, a generally fine nature documentary that's worth seeing especially in high-definition, especially on large monitors. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.