Jonathan Livingston Seagull (voiced by James Franciscus) despairs of the life of a seagull as lived by the flock he belongs to, with all that squabbling, fighting for food and scavenging that he has so little interest in. What Jonathan would much rather do is experiment with his new flying techniques, because he plans to fly faster than any seagull before him. Most of his kind can only reach a top speed of sixty-two miles per hour, and he knows he can do better as he soars high and drops towards the sea below, quicker and quicker until he plunges beneath the waves. Stunned, he returns to the surface and scrabbles onto a piece of debris floating by; will Jonathan achieve his dream, or will he have to return to the mundane life of his flock?
Before the penguins were marching, seagulls were winging it across the skies, although this was no simple nature documentary. It was based on the best selling novel by Richard Bach, a book that takes about ten minutes to read where the film version lasts the better part of two hours, although granted this leaves room for more bird footage. The way this story is presented is through the multitude of shots of the seagulls overlaid with a voiceover which attempts to tell us what they are thinking; occasionally a bird will glance down the camera lens in a "what are you looking at?" kind of way. It all appears very impressive to the eye, with glorious sunsets, superb aerial photography thanks to the use of helicopters, and attractively depicted landscapes for the hero to fly over.
However, while it looks very good indeed, it sounds less than admirable. What was effective as a fable on the printed page comes across as deeply pretentious and nothing less than sandal wearing, lentil-eating (or sandal-eating, lentil-wearing) hippy-dippy burblings when you have to sit down and experience it as a film, and it constantly verges on being plain silly. Nevertheless, the theme of self-actualisation is adhered to with (perhaps misguided) reverence, as Jonathan becomes an outcast in his flock thanks to a near miss with them taking off one way and him zooming down the other. All because he wanted to do something spiritual with his life, the story seems to say, and knowing when he's not wanted Jonathan wanders off, in a flight kind of manner, to find himself.
This involves a lot of scenic photography as director Hall Bartlett, who also adpated the screenplay, takes his seagull and has it flutter and swoop over a variety of locations, including a desert and a mountain range as well as the ocean, of course. After an encounter with an unfriendly eagle ("This is MY sky!") and a long journey to apparently nowhere, Jonathan is met by another seagull who introduces him to a smaller flock of birds who have attained a state of enlightenment, and invite him to join. This leads to an unexpectedly messianic turn of events, where our protagonist is blessed with special powers and a status that brings him back to his old flock to lead them the along a new path. Not that they're pleased to see him. Drawing on a seam of Eastern mysticism for good measure, the improving message is a little difficult to take after watching seagulls for over ninety minutes, however nice the scenery is, but on the plus side it's the kind of eccentric endeavour that not many filmmakers adopt, before or since. To break up what the unkind might term the monotony, there is a selection of songs from Neil Diamond on the soundtrack.