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The Big Year vs. The King's Speech

Finally, I got to see the first (and so far, only) birding movie “The Big Year.” Last fall, when the movie was in theaters, I missed my chance to see it on the big screen. It wasn’t my fault, though. After it didn’t do well on its opening weekend, the film was pulled from most theaters and quietly disappeared, seemingly overnight. In fact, some consider it one of the biggest flops of recent years.

As most low-achieving movies do, it turned up fairly quickly on video and pay-per-view. So finally, today, I got to see the movie all the birders were talking about.

First of all, it did not deserve to be one of the lowest grossing movies ever! Although it had a major flaw (which I’ll get to in a minute), it was overall a quality piece of work.

Birders especially will love this movie, if they didn’t already rush to see it in its brief release. The hobby of birding is portrayed positively, as a fun thing for normal people to do. Places that hardcore birders have been to or at least heard about (like the Aleutian Island of Attu) are shown, and there are some birding in-jokes. The crusty, female sea-captain named Auklet is based on a real female captain named Shearwater, for example.

Anyone wanting to see a family film will enjoy “The Big Year” as well. It is rated PG, but it is a soft PG.

Thematically, “The Big Year” treads much of the same ground as “The King’s Speech.” There is a confident older man who mentors a younger man badly in need of a friend. The villain in both movies is a shallow blonde guy with a bad attitude. But “The King’s Speech” succeeds because there is so much more at stake. If young, non-confident King George VI can’t win the love of his people on the brink of war, what would happen? Would they demand the blonde troublemaker Edward VIII back? Many British citizens didn’t want him to abdicate for “the woman he loved” Wallis Simpson. And if he came back, what would happen to Britain? Some historians think he was sympathetic to Germany. Would the course of the war be different?

In “The Big Year,” little is at stake, which gives the movie an overall lack of conflict. Helpful retiree Steve Martin helps divorced, depressed Jack Black travel the world in order to see more birds than snotty, blonde Owen Wilson. If they fail--well, nothing will really happen. Having the best “Big Year” gives a birder some notoriety within the hardcore birding circles, but there is little financial gain to be had.

I will not give away the ending, except to say that it wasn’t completely happy. Although “The Big Year” is based on a book by Mark Obamsik, many things were changed. The characters names were all changed. Jack Black’s character Brad was pretty similar to his real-life counterpart, Greg Miller, and Steve Martin’s Stu had much in common with his inspiration, Al Levantin. Owen Wilson, however, was based on a man named Sandy Komito, who was about 67 at the time of his big year. Wilson’s Kenny Bostick is a young man who is undergoing fertility treatments during the birding competition. All this is completely made up.

I don’t understand, then, why they didn’t give the film a more triumphant ending, or maybe throw in a more obvious incentive for these three men to give up everything to bird. This is the rare film that may have been improved by adding an evil real-estate developer or oil mogul.

The main problem, though, is that the film seems a little dated. The real big year of the three master birders was 1998. According to an interview given on NPR, it’s very unlikely that anyone will see 700 birds in a single year again. Not only was 1998 an El Nino year (and one of the warmest on record) it was a different era in times of travel. Our three heroes could walk right onto planes in their shoes, buy cheap tickets at a moment’s notice, and probably didn’t even need to show ID. It was a different time economically, as well. In these hard times, I could see why a movie about rich men pursuing an expensive hobby didn’t do well. But it’s a shame. Because, although the script had some problems, overall, it was a warm-hearted, likable little film.

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