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Review: Little raptor wrangler, natural beauty thrill

  • COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICs

    Aisholpan, a Mongolian girl, tames an eagle and competes against men in the scenic documentary “The Eagle Huntress.”

“The Eagle Huntress”

***

(G, 1:27)

Aisholpan is a 13-year-old girl who lives in Mongolia, dividing her time between a boarding school and her nomadic family’s campsite. With the release of “The Eagle Huntress,” a thrilling new documentary directed by Otto Bell, she may well become something else: a pop-culture heroine with the power to inspire girls (and not only girls) everywhere.

The story is a simple and appealing fable of indomitability and father-daughter companionship, crafted to be accessible. The subtitled dialogue is supplemented by gently didactic voice-over narration, read by the British actress Daisy Ridley (Rey of “Star Wars”). A rousing Sia song plays over the end credits.

Aisholpan’s father, Nurgaiv, comes from a long line of eagle hunters, men who catch young birds and train them to hunt other animals for meat and fur. The tradition of eagle hunting is almost exclusively male, and the filmmakers assemble a counsel of elders to explain why girls should not participate. Nurgaiv ignores their arguments, and when his daughter shows up at the annual eagle festival as the youngest and only female contestant, nobody tries to stop her.

That event, which gathers 70 eagle hunters on horseback in a Mongolian provincial capital, Olgii, near the Kazakh border, provides the film with a sports-movie structure. We follow Aisholpan through the stages of preparation, as she plucks an eaglet from a mountainside nest and teaches it to follow her directions. Nurgaiv is a wise and patient coach, adept at managing expectations and meting out praise when it’s most needed. His daughter, meanwhile, wrangles her captive raptor with ease and confidence, and commands the screen with natural charisma. She is open and cheerful, and also, as her father proudly notes, “a very tough child.”

It could hardly be otherwise, given the challenges of her vocation and the harshness of her surroundings. “The Eagle Huntress” may be driven by its main character and her story, but it’s also a nature documentary, reveling in spectacular images of the Central Asian steppes and the snow peaks that surround them. In keeping with the avian theme, the movie abounds in swooping, sometimes vertiginous aerial shots, most of them captured by drone-mounted cameras.

This is a movie that expands your sense of what is possible. A girl can hunt with an eagle. A camera can fly. Viewers jaded by daily doses of digital dazzlement might not fully register the reality of the wonders they are witnessing. But that doesn’t, in the end, make “The Eagle Huntress” any less wonderful.

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