Published on SoCal.com

 “Once upon a time, in the heart of Africa, is a lake of fire…” So begins the beautiful, unexpectedly touching tale The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos.

Disneynature’s second release after the stunning feature film earth (although filmed first), The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos was only screened in the United States at the 2009 Hamptons International Film Festival. Now available on the small screen, the rest of the country can experience the majesty and heartbreak captured over 14 months in Africa.

For many, flamingos are nothing more than lawn ornaments (or, in the case of Alice in Wonderland, croquet mallets), but these birds are truly miracles of nature. They live—and thrive—in an environment most life on earth would find unbearable. The caustic waters of Lake Natron in northern Tanzania can be as acidic as ammonia, and with temperatures as high as 130 degrees, it is, to say the least, inhospitable. Yet, for over two million years, the lesser flamingos have used it as their breeding ground, with nearly one million birds seeking mates and laying their eggs.

The nearby Maasai people are said to claim that the flamingos are made from the water’s soul
that they are the children of the lake. It is fitting, then, that The Crimson Wing follows the life of one chick from birth to young adulthood, as she migrates with her colony from Lake Natron to other lakes along Africa’s Rift Valley. From her first wobbly steps in her mother’s shadow to her gradual exploration of their little salt island, the filmmakers were dedicated to capturing the smallest of details in a new flamingo’s life.

That life is certainly not without peril. The young chicks face a variety of predators, such as marabou storks “that hover above the colony like storybook witches” threatening eggs and hatchlings; a mongoose that stalks the young chicks as they begin migrating away from Natron; a spotted hyena that attacks the colony, seeking older, weaker prey; and even the lake itself eventually takes a toll, encasing the legs of a few young birds in a salty shackle that, once hardened, cannot be removed, therefore crippling the birds who eventually get left behind the rest of the colony. These scenes are not made easy for any audience to see, but children might be particularly affected; this is nature at its most basic.

Because only lesser flamingos are featured in this film, viewers are treated to many interesting facts. For example, the baby flamingo is white and grey; only after feasting on the algae that blooms at Natron after the rainy season do their feathers, legs and eyes develop the signature bright pink hue. The more the flamingos consume, the brighter pink they get—a sign of a healthy, desirable mate.

The landscape definitely plays an important supporting role. From the harsh salt island that forms in the center of Natron to the nearby volcano that spews ash into the sky every 30 years, to thunderous clouds that bring the rain and nearly ripple-free waters that “in its stillness held heaven’s reflection,” viewers should be awed at both the minute details and the breathtaking scope captured by the high-definition cameras.

The images on-screen are visually arresting, never-before-captured moments in the flamingos’ lives. Due to the harsh conditions, it has been nearly impossible to capture these images before. The images get so up-close-and-personal, in fact, that the viewer appears to be centimeters away from the hatching of an egg. One might wonder if the filmmakers disguised themselves as birds in order to capture some of the intimate footage.

Originally released in French, the English version is beautifully narrated by Mariella Frostrup. Her voice brings to life the poetic quality of the narrative, which, along with the breathtaking visuals and the perfect score by The Cinematic Orchestra, make The Crimson Wing so much more than a nature documentary—it plays more like a visual love poem to the flamingo.

The bonus features on the DVD and Blu-ray releases (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, DVD MSRP: $29.99; Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack MSRP: $39.99) offer a glimpse at some of the efforts that went into the making of the film. “Lake Natron Diaries: Behind The Crimson Wing” offers five shorts detailing the filmmakers’ experiences during filming. “Life at the Camp” shows the accommodations of the crew during the shoot, and gives a bit more detail on what life in the wild was like; “Life of the Flamingo” gives a bit more detail on the mating and birthing habits of the pink birds; “Making Of” spills the secrets of getting such lush, detailed imagery; “Lake Natron” delves into the geological peculiarities of the titular lake; and “Music” details the creation of the unique score by The Cinematic Orchestra. Of all these pieces, “Making Of” offers the most interesting behind-the-scenes dish, detailing how the cameras captured visuals no one has been able to capture before. Another thing that jumps out at viewers is the pure joy the crew all had at making this movie. Even in such harsh conditions and with little contact with the developed world, they all seemed more than happy to trade in daily newspapers for salt flats and volcanoes.

Even more bits of info, from shooting challenges to editorial decisions, are contained in the Filmmaker Annotations on the Blu-ray disc. Unlike the usual director
’s commentary track, this is a picture-in-picture narration that gives the movie an extra dimension of personal experience.

The Blu-ray release also contain an interactive feature called “The Living Planet” in which viewers can click on spots on a globe and get real-time facts and information about the wildlife in that area, as well as current time and temperature. This feature does require an Internet connection to be fully optimized. An interesting inclusion, especially for young viewers, this bonus feature offers a new experience each time you use it.

Finally, The Crimson Wing Screensaver is a montage of music and images that capture the essence of the film in a five-minute loop. This is definitely more scenic than your last trip to Phoenix (which are, incidentally, a mythical bird inspired by the flamingo).

As with most nature films, The Crimson Wing touches on the impact humans may have on the ecosystem. According to the end card, pollution and development now threaten many African lakes, where these flamingos have reigned for 20 million years. In the words of the filmmakers, “How many more seasons of life and color do the flamingos have? And who will notice if they are gone forever?” Thanks to The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, more attention may ultimately help save these majestic, mysterious birds.

The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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