March of the Penguins

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 07/07/07 00:00:00

"Who knew a documentary about penguins could be this engrossing?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Co-produced by National Geographic Feature Films and directed by Luc Jacquet, [i]March of the Penguins[/i] ("Marche de l'empereur, La") documents the compelling mating and rearing rituals developed over thousands of years by the Antarctica-dwelling Emperor Penguins. Shot primarily on film over the course of a year by Jacquet’s cameramen and collaborators, Laurent Chalet and Jérôme Maison, "March of the Penguins" is never less than engaging, never less than breathtaking in the intimate depiction of the icy cold wastelands of Antarctica, the southernmost continent, making it a near-perfect, family-friendly nature documentary. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Academy Award-winning actor and all-around man-of-gravitas Morgan Freeman stepped in to provide the voiceover narration for the English-language adaptation.

Antarctica: The coldest, windiest, driest continent on earth. At or around the age of five, Emperor Penguins leave the relative safety of the ocean, where they’ve lived and fed year-round, for the arduous, 70-mile, 100-kilometer trek across ice, snow, and rocks, to their ancient breeding grounds. They walk or rather waddle, usually in single file, day and night until they reach their destination. When they’re too tired to walk, they slide along their stomachs, propelled by their flippers. When they’ve reached the breeding grounds, they find a mate. These pairings only last for nine months, the time necessary for mating to occur, the female to lay an egg, the chick to be born and cared for, until finally, males, females, and chicks return to the ocean to live and feed.

The male penguin takes responsibility almost immediately after the female lays an egg. Having lost up to one third of her body weight in laying an egg, the female must journey back to the ocean to feed. The male is left to care for the egg, carefully nestling the egg from the cold on his feet and under a flap of skin. Even exposure of just a few seconds can be fatal to the chick. But as the days give way to weeks and the weeks to months, most of the chicks hatch. Some survive the brutal conditions, including snowstorms and blizzards. Some don’t. The males huddle closely together, their chicks between their legs, for protection. When the females return after several months, the males leave their chicks behind and return to the ocean to feed and regain their strength (by then they’ve lost up one-half their body weight).

The cycle continues, with females caring for their chicks until the males return. The males, in turn, return from the ocean, fat on a steady diet of fish, to care for their young. If the chicks survive the sudden snowstorms or the occasional predator, all three return to the ocean, but they each go their own way, cutting off physical and emotional bonds. The chicks gravitate toward a self-sustaining social group, eventually molting. Their fine, gray feathers are replaced with the black-and-white feathers typical of adult penguins. If, five years later, the Emperor Penguins have survived Antarctica’s harsh, unforgiving climate and predatory leopard seals, they’ll return to the breeding grounds where they born to find a mate and procreate.

March of the Penguins tells us this much over just eighty minutes. It’s enough, though, to convey Antarctica’s grandeur and the Emperor Penguins mystifying reproductive cycle, where for just one season at a time, the penguins become monogamous. Monogamy is a clever, as in evolutionarily clever, means to increase the odds that chicks will survive infancy and begin their lives in the ocean nine months after the reproductive cycle began. Of course, "family values" groups with have cited the Emperor Penguins for proof about the efficacy of monogamy. They’re partly right, of course, but taking it further risks the usual problems associated with anthropomorphizing a species that may have little else in common with human behavior or ignoring other species who act instinctively contrary to deeply held, but no less ideological, set of beliefs.

Monogamy aside, March of the Penguins engages in anthropomorphism typical of documentary filmmakers eager for audiences to engage whatever subject they’re examining on an emotional, visceral level and respond accordingly. In short, they, and that “they” includes Jacquet and his collaborators, want us to identify intimately with the subjects of their documentary, to understand a particular species’ often desperate struggle for survival and what, if anything, we can and should do to minimize our impact on the ecosystems they rely on to survive. March of the Penguins certainly succeeds in that regard.

What is a surprise, though, is that the original French version went further, literally giving voice to three penguins. Producers of the English-language adaptation smartly decided to tone down the anthropomorphism, hired Jordan Roberts to translate and adapt Jacquet and Michel Fessler's script for "March of the Penguins." Morgan Freeman to provide "March of the Penguins" with the offscreen narrator who gently guides us through the Emperor Penguins’ peculiar reproductive cycle.

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