The Crimson Wing

The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos sounds like it might be a classy film noir detective story from the 1940s where everyone smokes and matchbooks are almost always a clue. It’s not. It’s an early (2008) Disneynature documentary, before they developed the simple titling system that created such gems as “Bears” and “Penguins.” Today’s Disneynature docs are slick affairs, incredible photography paired with an anthropomorphic narrative that makes it fun to follow, and the big-name celebrity lending their voice sure doesn’t hurt.

But while The Crimson Wing is still working out this recipe for success, it’s still a pretty good watch.

Lake Natron in northern Tanzania is quite unique. Its water can often reach the same alkaline levels of pure ammonia. Thanks to a nearby volcano, a sodium crust forms on its surface. This is where a million crimson-winged flamingos are born (or lesser flamingos, if you will), live, and die, and have done so for nearly 20 million years. It’s a dramatic and unforgiving landscape. The salt builds up around little baby ankles, like shackles, that perilously slow them down, or shuts them down altogether (yeah, dead baby birds, it’s rough).

But the drive to stay alive and thrive is innate in all of us, and these flamingos aren’t chicken. They’ve kept the species going this long, hardship is in their blood, and the presence of a few cameras isn’t going stop them from living life. This is a rarely-photographed slice of Africa, a vast area of little besides drying salt that often gets left off even maps. But Disney gives us a bird’s eye view (ew, pun), and if you’re willing to tolerate the agonizing stamping out of the fuzziest, downiest life you’ve ever seen, young, hopeful little creatures who keep persevering long after being left behind, defying the odds, the predators, the searing heat – all just to succumb to salt accumulation around their dainty little ankles. If nature is the mob, then salt is the cement shoes, and soon their fluffy little bodies become just another bump in the road.

All right, enough moaning. I understand that death is part of life (sound like bullshit to anyone else?) and blah blah blah, why be upset about this one headstrong, floofy little chick when heavy rains literally washed out every egg in the nesting grounds so that the crew had to sit around on their own butts waiting for the flamingos to breed again.

People who live out in these crazy conditions for years at a time just to get one perfect shot of an innocent baby’s last breath must be a special kind of nut. We call them documentary film makers, but that’s definitely a euphemism for nut. And it’s not just because they used both snowshoes and hovercrafts to get around (although: nutty), it’s more that when the nearby volcano erupted during filming, they described it as “fortunate” when literally everyone else on the planet would have gone the other way on that one.

Anyway, the flamingos remain dignified even while being scrutinized by nuts, proving that whoever called them lesser got it wrong.

1 thought on “The Crimson Wing

  1. Liz A.

    Hasn’t that been the Disney formula for decades, though? There are much older docs (I’m talking ’60s) where they did similar things for a TV audience. Better picture quality today, though.

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