Jonathan Livingston Seagull [1973]

There isn't a lot of middle ground when it comes to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which comes to DVD in 2007, 34 years after it was released theatrically, 15 years after it appeared in the VHS format, and nearly 40 years after the first publication of Richard Bach's novella. One person's poetic is another's pretentious; while many find inspiration and enlightenment in its allegorical message of self-realization and fulfillment, many others are repelled by its sophomoric, superficial moralizing. There is, however, one aspect of director Hall Bartlett's film that pretty much everyone agrees on: it's beautifully photographed, and richly deserving of its 1974 Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography, with shot after breathtaking shot of the titular bird and his flock on the wing (and done without CGI or other modern technological trickery, other than the use of some radio-controlled models). Still, even an ornithologist would grow weary of endless shots of seagulls soaring and swooping, and when they start to talk, well, that's where the battle lines are drawn. James Franciscus, speaking in a hoarse, urgent whisper, supplies the voice of Jonathan, a young gull obsessed with flying higher, faster, and "without limits." This doesn't sit too well with the conformist stiffs who run the show, and the rebellious Jonathan finds himself an outcast… at least until he hooks up with some other, more evolved birds, who show him an existentially higher place and encourage him to return to his flock (who have names like Kirk Maynard, Judy Lee, and Charles-Roland) and share his profound life lessons with the others. If all of that sounds a bit sententious, that's because it is; while there's no arguing with the film's positive gist (basically, that it's good to be yourself and take a few risks), it's hammered home with all the subtlety of a Thomas Kinkade painting. Neil Diamond's music doesn't help, either, as the songwriter (with collaborator Lee Holdridge) delivers some of the most cloying songs of his career, somehow managing to sound sentimental and grandiose at the same time. In the end, perhaps the best solution is to watch Jonathan Livingston Seagull with the sound off. --Sam Graham

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