Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973) – By Jonathon Pernisek

Animals, usually when cute, often find themselves under the protection of mankind. If you’re a cow or pig, tough luck, but dogs, cats, dolphins, and other species seem to be in a league of their own in terms of deserving respect. This is doubly so if these animals are working under the Hollywood banner. I’m sure everyone is familiar with the disclaimer “No animals were harmed in the making of this picture.” It has appeared in the credits of practically every film released after 1989, when the American Human Association officially trademarked their seal of approval. Unfortunately for the animals in today’s film, the ‘70s were a bit more lax.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull, based on the bestselling book by Richard Bach, is truly a sight to behold. At times beautiful in its photography and other times grotesque in its harsh capturing of nature, the movie definitely brings up questions in the mind of the viewer. These questions will most likely not have to do with its paper thin Christ allegory, but rather just how and why the filmmakers got their seagull footage in the first place. Bleeding and pecking at one other, thrashing about underwater in wild attempts to avoid drowning, battling territorial falcons and crashing into the sides of cliffs, these gulls are presented as having pretty horrifying lives.

What really troubles me about this footage is its use not in a nature documentary but rather a wholly fictional tale. If a group of people had set out to simply film the lives of seagulls and present their findings, this would be one matter. But this movie reeks of exploitation because the audience is supposed to watch these stomach-churning moments of life-or-death with the idea of these birds acting as characters. Actors actually lent their voices to the characters, in fact, making the experience of watching the film even more unpleasant and disturbing. Who puts a camera underwater, films a seagull trying to save itself from death, then tries to sell the bird as an underdog hero searching for meaning in the universe? It’s just sick is all I’m saying.

Putting aside the whole moral aspect, Jonathan Livingston Seagull just isn’t a very good movie. The story is pure hippie drivel, with the rebellious Jonathan being booted out of his flock for his head-in-the-clouds attitude. His big goal is to fly faster and higher than any other gull, and when he accomplishes this task he takes a trip around the world to ultimately freeze to death in the mountains. He wakes up in Seagull Heaven, where a wise old bird named Chang teaches him even more about flying while Kimmy, the resident love interest, encourages his progress. All of this leads up to our boy being reincarnated so he can adopt some disciples, anger a narrow-minded flock, and so on and so forth. Trust me, you don’t wanna know anymore.

So what can a movie with a running time of 99 minutes say about seagulls and their never-ending search for perfect flight? Not much, so we’re forced to watch them fly for minutes on end while either utter silence or what passes for Neil Diamond music plays in the background. I honestly think this movie could be prescribed as a sedative for people with sleep disorders, as watching Jonathan soar above location after location felt like three glasses of warm milk was being poured down my throat. Diamond’s music is okay, I guess, but half the time I had no idea what he was saying and when I did the lyrics were pure drivel. “Lonely lookin’ sky, lookin’ sky, lonely lookin’ sky…” is just one of the many gems you’ll be treated to if you pick up this video.

The voice cast provides some slight amusement, since everyone involved delivers their dialogue with the strained earnest of soldiers caught in a fox hole. Did they honestly think lines like, “There’s got to be more to life than fighting for fish heads!” were worth as much pathos as they provided? Jonathan is easily the most dramatic, always croaking and whispering, while a character simply referred to as The Elder gets to scream and achieve the hammiest of acting heights. I have to assume everyone involved in this film was heavily influenced by drugs, though, so my critiques won’t be too harsh.

Maybe a film adaptation of Richard Bach’s book could never have worked. The philosophy creaks with an outdated air and the story is just too flimsy to support a full length feature. The best suggestion I could have offered at the time would have been to make the movie animated, ala Watership Down, thus removing the element of live-action seagulls, you know, killing themselves for our entertainment. As such, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a somewhat interesting failure, with some decent photography being its only real good point.