Fly Away Home (Carroll Ballard)

Rating: **1/2 (out of ****)

It's a sign of how humdrum this year's family fare has been -- anyone eager to sit through The Hunchback of Notre Dame or James and the Giant Peach or Muppet Treasure Island again? -- that critics are competing to see who can toss the most fanciful superlatives at the mildly pleasant, mostly forgettable timekiller Fly Away Home. Don't be misled; apart from some spectacular aerial cinematography, decent performances by Anna Paquin and Jeff Daniels, and some cute geese, there's no there there. Though it begins promisingly, disconcerting the viewer with a hypnotically beautiful depiction of a fatal traffic accident, then making a brief but welcome effort to create complex characters and sustain an appropriately (given the circumstances) morbid tone, the picture quickly succumbs to formula requirements, and by the end we might as well be hearing "Gonna Fly Now." Worse, it's mediocre even by commercial standards; Ballard and screenwriters Robert Rodat and Vince McKewin work overtime to drum up some conflict, tossing an evil game warden, evil land developers, and unresolved father-daughter tension in the path of our heroes and their intrepid avian friends...and it still feels as though nothing much is happening at any given moment. Narrative events seem simultaneously ludicrously contrived and utterly inconsequential -- not a winning combination. But I'm making the film sound worse than it is; as noted, the lead performances are quite strong -- Paquin, in particular, demonstrates that her Oscar-winning work in The Piano wasn't a fluke -- and Caleb Deschanel's exquisite work behind the lens is worth at least half the price of admission. And them goslings sure are cute. Babe it ain't, but you could do worse. How's that for half-hearted praise?