Review: The Big Year is One of the Best Birding Movies Ever

The Big Year is undeniably cute. Warmhearted, even. PG comedy done right, though there are far more smiles than laughs. Completely innocuous, mostly harmless, or even downright vanilla - no matter how you describe The Big Year you will end up back at the same place where qualitative measurement is concerned. The film is cute, charming, and passes the time in a pleasant enough manner. But that's it! That's as far as one can go, unless one happens to be an avid birder. It's not groundbreaking comedy, and at times it isn't a comedy it all. That's fine for a matinee or rental, though I wouldn't pay the extra surcharge for 3-D birds. What's that? It's not available in 3-D? Fair enough.

Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson are bird enthusiasts. Birders, even. They are all on a quest to see the most species of bird in a year, this informal competition is called a "Big Year" in the birding community. There's some intrigue behind this "Big Year" pursuit. For one, according to the film, you're supposed to keep it pretty clandestine. Owen Wilson's character holds the record for species spotting, (732 in the film) and he's back out on another quest, attempting to break his own record.


Sorry, attempted to inject massive tension into a pleasant dramedy, my fault. But there is a toll to pay, and it's Wilson's (known as Kenny Bostick) marriage that's in trouble. Steve Martin is a massively successful entrepreneur who is nearing retirement and loves bird watching. Adores it, even. He's attempting to pivot out of the business world and into his own Big Year pursuit, but his lawyerly co-workers keep trying to pull him back in. He's a bit like Michael Corleone in that respect. The final lead is Jack Black as a down on his luck nuclear power plant operator named Brad Harris. This fellow has a special gift, he can determine hundreds of species of birds by sound alone. He's the plucky underdog, without the financial resources of the corporate titan or the savvy veteran presence of the current record holder. As you can see, each birder has their own cross to bear when it comes to the effect loving bird spotting has on their life, we'll see the interplay between the three leads and each particular issue throughout the film.

Now, about that PG rating. There are two curse words sprinkled in, but other than that the humor is mined from massively kind places. Phrases like "crazier than a road lizard!" are liberally used. They also throw a mess of birding terms at you, "Code 5 bird" is the only one I remember off the top of my head ... but that might be enough for you to start a nice conversation with at a cocktail party. More than anything, The Big Year is a travelogue, with the trio crisscrossing North America in search of rare species. Locales such as Minnesota, Oregon, Texas, Arizona, Alaska, British Columbia, even Florida are considered and given a few minutes of screentime. When one scene ends you can rest assured that the next scene will start in a completely different place, with different weather, and an entirely different bird to track down. Scores are kept throughout as Wilson, Black, and Martin's characters all vie for the new world record. At 100 brisk minutes it all moves along rather fluidly.

Did you know the bald eagle's courtship ritual involves locking talons and then free-falling to Earth, talon in talon? No, me either, and that's just one of the important pieces of trivia one could pick up in The Big Year. No, you won't laugh out loud (AKA LOL) but there's a modicum of tension as to how the film will end. A very mild movie, but in the nicest sense of the word.

Grade: B