Paramount // 1973 // 99 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // October 22nd, 2007
Everyone's Book Is Now Everyone's Motion Picture
Constantly taking off on his own, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is one disgruntled bird. He wants to fly faster, travel farther, and ignore the outdated laws of The Flock's dictatorial elders. Instead of picking at garbage for sustenance, he'd rather try out new dangerous wing patterns. As a result, he soon finds himself outcast from his feathered family. On his own for the first time, he drinks in the initial freedom. But as the realities of life alone start to sink in, Jonathan stumbles. Soon, he finds himself in a surreal world where lives are measured in centuries, not years, and where reincarnation allows his kind to transcend their body and teleport through space. After learning more about his special spiritual powers, Jonathan takes another non-conformist seagull under his wing. Tragedy tests both of their mantles. It's all part of being one with the cosmos and discovering your inner self. It's something that Jonathan Livingston Seagull has strived for his entire life.
So Jesus was a seagull. Or in deference to all devout Christians out there, a bird can be a messianic figure once it has a Trial of Billy Jack-like spiritual reawakening. Guess all those Christ sightings in bagels and pizza slices aren't so silly after all. For anyone old enough to recall the whole Godspell/Superstar revivalism of the early '70s (as clear a mea culpa for the preceding '60s as any culture can create), Jonathan Livingston Seagull was a plain-speak Bible combined with The Unexpurgated Guide to Water Fowl. Today it would be dismissed as New Age heresy -- or perhaps, a literal fine-feathered soup for the easily enlightened soul -- but back when flares were fashionable and people were feeling powerless against a corrupt government machine, this was Deepak Chopra with wings. Richard Bach was lambasted for cookie-cutter literary sloppiness and a far-too-liberal interpretation of man's secular status in the cosmic hierarchy, but that didn't hurt his bank account any. Every high-school freshman found this best-selling bird book smack dab in the middle of the required-reading list, while older generations, desperate for some post-sexual revolution respite, tucked into the novel's altruistic excess like highballs at an open bar. As with most fads, it quickly faded, but just to put a cap on the craze, writer/director Hal Bartlett brought the fable to the big screen.
If you can tolerate the touchy-feely foundation of Bach's backwards belief system, and then Zen hit maker Neil Diamond's sonic take on same, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a stunning experience. It is, without a doubt, one of the more visually magnificent movies ever made. Oscar-nominated for its outstanding cinematography (by Disney True-Life Adventures photographer Jack Couffer) and editing (vast sweeping vistas courtesy of Jack P. Keller and James Galloway), it is a sumptuous optical wonder, a nature-based work of cinematic art. When we first meet the title character, he is soaring majestically through cotton soft clouds and over hyper-realistic seashore settings. As slow motion waves crash against abandoned beaches, our hero hovers and dives, sun setting slowing to produce a perfect orange glow. It's just incredible. Jonathan Livingston Seagull actually plans on using this image-based bravado for the vast majority of its storytelling -- and we're willing to buy it, up to a point. Indeed, the minute Mr. "Song Sung Blue" opens his pipes to pitch operatic, we start to shrink from the conceit. There is technically nothing wrong with Diamond's score. It's never pop songy, but it does get mighty saccharine.
When the birds begin to speak, however, all bets are off. Since the book allowed the interaction between the characters to be semi-subjective in nature, it was an easier premise to buy. But when given the voice of a slightly irritating nebbish, Mr. Seagull becomes spoiled. There are several times throughout the course of this film when you wish a parent or down-covered pal would walk up to our hero and smack him upside the beak. If you're going to anthropomorphize a creature, why make him so gosh-darned whiny? You can frequently hear actor James Franciscus suffering during the voice-over. He can't believe some of the lumbering lines he's given. Luckily, everyone else is much less grating. Richard Crenna, Juliet Mills, Hal Holbrook, and Dorothy McGuire all do a bang-up job of making us believe these motionless entities are actually conversing (this is 1973, remember -- a tad too soon for CGI moving mouths). While it may have been possible to make this film without all of Bach's EST-laden psychobabble, it does help deliver the movie's main point. Without it, we'd have 100 minutes of lovely landscapes and little else.
Thematically, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is stuck in supporting something best described as nice non-conformity. Our amiable albatross wants desperately to teach The Flock what he knows -- about flying, about living, about avoiding eating your meals out of the city landfill. But they're the aviary version of sheep -- easily led and dumb as dirt. Jonathan must have a near-death epiphany, followed by a full-blown psychedelic freak-out, before he learns the power of one...bird. The sudden shift into New Testament territory begins when our hero delivers his sermon on the mount...of garbage. Then he resurrects a fellow gull who flew too close to a hazard, Icarus style, and cracked his plumed coconut. During the final fifteen minutes, we keep waiting for the cast of Disney's Tropical Tiki Room Revue to step up and start singing "Could We Start Again Please." It all gets very heavy handed and meta-metaphysical at the end, trying to be every dogma to all mankind. But if you simply give the story its dated wacky packaging and enjoy the sights, you'll get a great deal out of this preachy pictorial. Jonathan Livingston Seagull may argue for self-sacrifice and the quest for freedom, but he remains -- at least in film form -- a pretty inconsistent pigeon to carry such a message.
Paramount, proving it cares little for the fans beyond delivering a bare-bones, movie-only DVD, actually offers some serious technical specs for J.L. Seagull's digital bow. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is absolutely amazing. The aerial photography used to capture this bird's universe has no equal. Even modern movies can't match it. Similarly, Diamond's droning is provided in a Dolby Digital Mono mix that's actually pretty good, considering the single-channel dynamic. There is no distortion, and the massive orchestration that accompanies his voice is clear and crisp. It's just too bad about the lack of content. It would have been fun to hear Bach, who is still alive and in his early '70s, to comment on the film, the phenomenon, and the lasting effects on his career. He's written several more books over the years (mostly about aviation) but being a past cultural lynchpin should make for a few interesting anecdotes. Sadly, we get nothing but the movie itself.
For those of us fond of our formative years, looking back on everything that made them important with a new sense of personal perspective, a few are bound to fail the significance test. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is such an artifact. As a film, it has a visual power that's destined to endure. As a philosophy, it gives the Reverend Moon a run for his money.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1973
MPAA Rating: Rated G