March of the Penguins
directed by Luc Jacquet
(Warner, 2005)

The Oscar winner for Best Documentary, March of the Penguins actually earned more at the box office (to the tune of over $77 million) than four of the five movies nominated for Best Picture. It may be a wildlife documentary, but it is definitely a theatrical experience.

With its gorgeous cinematography and impeccable narration by the acclaimed Morgan Freeman, it can't help but impress, but the stars of the show are the emperor penguins of Antarctica, truly one of the most amazing species of animals on the planet. These aren't just little guys in tuxedoes who waddle around and sometimes fall down for our amusement; these are incredibly sensitive, intelligent creatures who truly reveal the wonders of Creation in the form of their uniquely challenging lives. Anyone who says animals have no souls hasn't looked into the eyes of a single animal; emotions that some consider uniquely human are revealed for all to see in March of the Penguins.

It's no surprise that life on the Antarctic continent is a rather harsh affair, but it's amazing to see just how hard life truly is for the emperor penguin. It would seem, though, that this is the way they want it. Every autumn, hundreds and hundreds of these creatures leave their ocean homes to trek no less than 70 miles to their ancient breeding ground far inside the Antarctic interior. Once they arrive, the males and females form up in monogamous pairs. Once an egg is laid, the female and male take part in an elaborate dance by which the egg is transferred from the female to the male. Each precious egg can only survive mere moments in the harsh Antarctic cold, so the transfer process must be done efficiently -- there is only one try. Not all transfers are successful, and even Mr. Magoo could clearly see the pain and sorrow etched on the faces of both mates as they look down upon a lost egg.

All of the males who have secured their eggs then bid goodbye to their mates, as the females return the dozens of miles back to the ocean to feed so they can return and sustain their young after birth. Huddled together in the freezing cold, instinctively shifting position from time to time to allow everyone some time inside the warmer inner circle, the males wait over the course of four winter months -- no food, nothing but fallen snow to abate their thirst, trying not to freeze to death. After the eggs begin to hatch, they must work harder than ever to keep their young warm and wait for the return of the females and the food they will provide. After the happy reunions of those who have survived, the fathers then set off on the trek back to the water, leaving the females to raise the young, protect them from the harsh conditions, predators (and sometimes one another, as some females who lose their chicks try to steal others) and prepare them for their own life journeys.

As amazing as it sounds, you have to see it to truly appreciate it. It almost makes you ashamed to be a human being. So many men and women treat procreation as a lark or a mistake that can be "fixed," thousands of deadbeat dads refuse to support their children, and far too many mothers and fathers take no responsibility for raising their children, seemingly not caring a thing about them. How different we are from the emperor penguins, who routinely suffer almost unimaginable hardships in order to sustain their species.

There is a tremendous amount for viewers to learn about emperor penguins in this masterpiece of a documentary, but I daresay there may even be more for us to learn from these noble creatures -- they are more human than far too many men and women who are human in name only.

by Daniel Jolley
20 May 2006

My experience with March of the Penguins, Luc Jacquet's mesmerizing documentary now out on DVD, goes something like this:

It's a Sunday matinee, filled with about 40 kids and their assorted adults. Morgan Freeman's rather drony narration is going way over the heads of many of the children, who nevertheless are spellbound by the sight of emperor penguins marching, single file, away from the water and over the Antarctic snow toward their breeding grounds.

Waddle, waddle, belly flop. Slide, slide, waddle.

As the procession inches forward, a lone penguin lags behind. He waddles behind an outcropping of snow ... and doesn't reappear. Freeman intones something like, "Those who fall behind will not make the final destination."

A flurry of whispers from the kids in the audience. A flurry of whispers back from the grown-ups.

Then: "He died?? The penguin dies??"

It's your first sign that March of the Penguins isn't going to sugar-coat the stark, brutal odds that face these penguins:

Leaving the ocean in March, as it begins to freeze. Walking by the hundreds, miles inland across ice and snow, to breed. Breeding. Laying the egg. Transferring the egg a day later -- without dropping the egg, or it will freeze on contact with air -- from the females to males. Females, who have lost a third of their body weight, waddling back to the water to find food and avoid ravenous leopard seals. Females trekking back to relieve the males, who have slowly starved themselves as they stood virtually motionless for two months of dark Antarctic winter, tending the eggs.

Babies hatching, only to be snatched by predators. Males abandoning their eggs because the females haven't returned in time, and the males also must get to the open sea to feed.

And we humans gripe when the grocery store runs out of 2 percent milk right before a snowstorm.

Jacquet and his cameramen, Jerome Maison and Laurent Chalet, stood by through it all, spending a full year documenting the lives of creatures not very well known to humans. Withstanding 100 mph winds and unable to view the footage they were shooting, the humans' resilience is as astonishing as the penguins' -- who, after all, are as adapted as a creature can be to those conditions.

Originally released as La Marche de l'empereur, with a different narration and soundtrack, March was redone for the English-speaking audience ("fewer subtitles, more dollars" seems to have been the thinking). As breathtaking as Jacquet's documentary is, it's hard to top the reality of the emperors.

by Jen Kopf
28 April 2007

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