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Movie Review

Hollywood cliches clip wings of breathtaking visuals

Nurgaiv Aisholpan in “The Eagle Huntress.”Asher Svidensky/Sony Pictures Classics

In the spurious live-action documentary “The Eagle Huntress,” first-time director Otto Bell translates another culture’s traditions into the tired platitudes of a second-rate Disney animation. The tale of a 13-year-old girl in a Kazakh region in Mongolia who aspires to the title calling becomes a repetitious, half-baked, contrived, and crudely staged homily on female empowerment. It tells us less about Kazakh nomads than “Pocahontas” (1995) does about the Algonquins in 17th century Virginia; “Nanook of the North” (1922) it is not.

Among the distortions, Aisholpan, the charismatic, apple-cheeked heroine of the film, was not the first female to aspire to becoming an eagle huntress as the film repeatedly suggests (the film’s production notes say otherwise). Such a detail would spoil the conflict between an independent-minded young woman and a patriarchal culture called for by a Hollywood narrative. The montages of Kazakh elders who express their rote disapproval of and doubts about Aisholpan’s ambition are less interesting than the brilliantly patterned garments, wall hangings, and other artifacts in these scenes. Those at least provide a glimpse into the actual culture.


Nonetheless, Aisholpan’s accomplishment impresses. Training with her father Nurgaiv, she prepares for the traditional Golden Eagle Festival, where she faces off against 70 craggy veterans. On her way to victory she comes close to winning the best outfit competition, sporting a fox fur hat and embroidered jacket that looks ready for a Vogue spread. Most remarkably, she wins the event in which the eagle swoops down from a hilltop to its owner, setting a record time of five seconds.

The image of a huge raptor surging toward and perching on this sturdy girl’s arm is among many that make the film worth seeing. Others include bird’s-eye views of the eagle’s flight achieved by a tiny attached camera, and breathtaking vistas of the Altai Mountains by means of a drone. But Bell’s insistence on bringing everything down to a kid-friendly generic lowest common denominator clips the documentary’s wings. The redundant voice-over narrations of various subjects, including one by Daisy Ridley, star of the upcoming “Rouge: A Star Wars Story,” repeat the same trite observations while failing to clarify exactly when, where, and why events are happening. An opportunity to capture on film a unique cultural enclave is reduced to a Hollywood pastiche.




Directed by Otto Bell. Starring Nurgaiv Aisholpan, Rys Nurgaiv, Kuksyegyen Almagul, Boshai Dalaikhan, Bosaga Rys, Daisy Ridley. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 87 minutes. Rated G. In Kazakh, with subtitles.