Film: Fly Away Home (1996). Young Actress: Anna Paquin, age 13.
For actors of any age, an Oscar-winning role is a tough act to follow. But when you win an Oscar at age 11 and become the second-youngest winner ever, it's even tougher. It's easy to see why Anna and her protective parents chose Fly Away Home for her first major post-Oscar movie. Like the geese at its center, this movie soars above typical family entertainment. It's one of those rare films that kids and adults can both really enjoy.
The opening scene – of young Amy (Anna) and her mom in a car crash – packs a punch, but in an impressively gentle way. The entire scene is mute, set to an old-fashioned love ballad, "Ten Thousand Miles," sung by Mary Chapin Carpenter. (It might also be the voice of Amy's mom, a professional singer.) The song fades out as Amy wakes up in a hospital bed, bruised, scraped, and confused. At her bedside is her dad Thomas (Jeff Daniels, Steve Jobs), whom she barely knows, with heart-breaking news: her mom was killed in the car crash, and Amy must now leave her native New Zealand to go live with her dad in rural Canada.
From there, the obvious plot (the one that kids can enjoy) involves Amy raising a flock of orphaned goslings that she finds in the Canadian wilderness around her dad's home. Since they have no parents to teach them how to migrate south for the winter, Amy determines to do it herself. Thomas, an engineer/artist, builds two miniature airplanes and teaches Amy how to pilot them. Together they fly to the southern United States with Amy's geese following along. It's a very cute, well-done kidventure story.
Amy and her baby geese
The more subtle plot (the one that reaches out to older viewers) is about Amy healing from her mother's death and bonding with her dad and his live-in girlfriend (Dana Delany), whom she initially resents. The home of the title isn't so much about the geese finding a winter home to migrate to, but more about Amy learning to accept her life with her dad as her new home. It's all handled in a very beautiful, delicate way. I don't always agree with Dale & Alex of Young Actress Reviews, but I do here. From their review: "Many people consider this movie Anna's best, and an overall wonderful movie. For me, Fly Away Home is one of those movies from which I regularly view and listen to individual scenes, enjoying the sheer beauty and accent of them." Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs up, too.
In her last real childhood role, Anna gives a wonderful performance as Amy. There are several scenes with no dialogue, set to instrumental music, of Amy interacting with the geese, and they really allow Anna's natural talent and strong screen presence to shine through. In many ways, she is much more charming and watchable here than in The Piano, the movie that won her the Oscar.
Film: Away and Back (2015). Young Actress: Maggie Elizabeth Jones, age 10.
Nearly twenty years later, Hallmark Channel threw in a romance and changed a few plot points, but essentially, they remade Fly Away Home as an "original movie," Away and Back. Of course, you shouldn't expect a made-for-TV movie to live up to a fine film like Fly Away Home, and this one doesn't. It doesn't start off too badly. Like Anna's Amy, Maggie's Frankie is a motherless girl who finds a nest of motherless goose eggs and determines to care for them herself. She also holds a funeral for the mother goose, which is more touching than you might think. But then, about thirty minutes in, Frankie reaches out to a local ornithologist (Minka Kelly, Just Go With It) for help. As soon as she comes onscreen, the romance between her and Frankie's widowed dad (Jason Lee) takes over, and it's handled in a very dull, cliched way.
Ornithologist Jennie examines Frankie's goose eggs
Maggie is a cute, decent actress, and she gets slightly more screentime here than in her earlier film We Bought a Zoo. But in terms of the predictable romance, poor writing, and use of animals, you might as well be watching We Bought a Zoo.
Fly Away Home and Away and Back have almost exactly the same contrast that you'll see between the 1993 film The Secret Garden (one of my favorite child-actress movies) and its 2001 sequel, Back to the Secret Garden. In both cases, the original movie has excellent acting, realistic characters, a strong atmosphere, and depth, while the sequel/remake is just cutesy and insubstantial.