CARROLL BALLARD'S ENCHANTING children's movie Fly Away Home opens with the primal blow that seems to be de rigueur in ""family films'' these days--the death of a mother. Bereft, 13-year-old Amy (""The Piano's'' Anna Paquin) is uprooted from her New Zealand home and taken to live with her father (Jeff Daniels), whom she hasn't seen since she was 3, in the Ontario countryside. He's a sculptor, preoccupied with his art and his homemade inventions, and he doesn't know how to get Amy out of her deep funk. The lonely, friendless girl skulks about the farm, and Ballard, who makes kids' movies that don't pan- der, conveys her wintry isolation in Wyeth-like images.
What brings Amy out of her angry shell is a flock of newly hatched, motherless geese. Geese will imprint on the first face they see, and they take Amy to be their mom. ""Fly Away Home'' tells the story of how Amy raises this family of goslings. But what will happen when fall comes, and they must migrate? Refusing to clip their wings, Amy and her father must find a way to teach the geese the proper route south to the Carolinas. The geese will follow only their ""mother''--so she must learn to fly herself, and lead them to their new home.
The sight of these soaring geese, trailing across the sky alongside Amy's craft, is extraordinary--all the more so because for the most part we're not watching special effects. These are real birds, not computer graphics. The filmmakers are re-creating the experiment first performed by Bill Lishman, whose autobiography inspired this fiction. Ballard responds to this challenge with the same poet's eye that made ""The Black Stallion'' such a classic children's film. He's a bit like the obsessive father in this tale: he likes impossible filmmaking tasks, and stories about cranky loners communing with the animals. It's hard to think of anyone else who could have invested this tale with such lyrical conviction.
As ""Fly Away Home'' cruises into its rousing home stretch, writers Robert Rodat and Vince McKewin lay on a few more melodramatic twists than they need. But a few concessions to Hollywood hokum won't seriously damage your enjoyment. Nor, I hope, will the shadow cast by the young pilot Jessica Dubroff, whose fatal accident occurred after this film was shot. With the grave, no-nonsense Paquin leading the way, it would take a pretty hard heart to resist the inspirational delights of Ballard's movie. No better children's film has appeared all year, but my bet is it'll be the grown-ups, not the kids, who come away with a lump in the throat.