March of the Penguins
Directed by Luc Jacquet
March of the Penguins has what most wildlife documentaries lack – a heart-tugging story. Emperor penguins live in some of the most extreme conditions on earth, on the ice and in the water around Antarctica. The movie tells the amazing story of what they must do to reproduce. When they’re not swimming or sliding on their bellies, emperor penguins walk upright giving the already photogenic birds a human look. Actually, their walk is more of a waddle – short legs – and they have to trek 70 miles over an ice sheet to get to their breeding ground every Antarctic fall.
After the mating ritual – charmingly presented – the females lay one egg apiece and the males are charged with having to keep the egg warm through the Antarctic winter (100 mile per hour winds and minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit) – surviving by huddling together and moving continuously with the egg tucked under a flap of skin and on top of the feet… and after not having eaten for four months. The mothers must trek back to the edge of the ice where they can feed so that they can return (over the 70 mile path in the perpetually dark Antarctic winter) to find their mate and chick. Then the male has to waddle the 70 miles to feed – there are fewer males than females since this part of the process is so difficult. The males have lost half their body weight, not having eaten in over four months.
The males and females take turns trekking to the sea for food for the chicks until they are old enough to be set free to hunt for themselves in the sea. The movie tells the story of one year in the life of these remarkable penguins – it’s a compelling tale where our protagonists endure unbelievable hardship – to produce that one egg per couple on which the survival of the species rests.
Most documentaries get by with fair to poor production values – grainy photography, etc. March of the Penguins features gorgeous cinematography of the stark Antarctic landscape and the adorable penguins. All through the film, I often tried to imagine what the filmmakers had to endure to obtain the footage – and still manage to get such attractive footage. That often crosses my mind when I see an interesting shot in a movie… but this is something else – shooting (including camping out and doing all else necessary to sustain human life) in the winter in Antarctica! It’s amazing that they were able to get so much beautiful footage – including many crisp close-up shots.
Morgan Freeman narrates the American version of this French production in traditional nature-film fashion. He describes what we see going on and punches up the drama once in a while to keep the audience aware that the birds’ survival is at stake. Since the penguins are so cute yet awkward – they seen to topple over a lot – it would be easy to overdo the comic angle – the filmmakers play it about right. I heard that the original French version (which I haven’t seen) takes a completely different approach to the voiceover narration. Instead of a traditional descriptive narration, they had a male actor voicing a male penguin and a woman voicing a mommy penguin – spinning a story of two particular penguins’ mission to hatch the egg and feed their chick. It sounds silly – I think I’d prefer the version that I saw.
March of the Penguins is apparently doing good box office for a film of this type. It’s playing in only a small number of theaters but it’s average box office take per theater is high – a good indication that it’s at least an “art house” hit. The story wielded a powerful hook on my emotions. All the images of adult penguins waddling like plump little men in tuxedos over the ice sheet in unbelievably harsh conditions… and if they don’t make all of those trips the cute little chick will just die. The strong story and the beautiful cinematography combined to make the best film of its type in memory.
For an overview of emperor penguins read the Wikipedia entry on the species by clicking here.
Images are copyright Warner Independent Pictures.
For more information about this film including detailed cast and crew credits, check out The Internet Movie Database by clicking here.