Review: March of the Penguins

The Thinker by Rodin

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. If you do not have any respect for the other species inhabiting our planet, the documentary March of the Penguins should provide it. No matter what problems you may have the dating, mating and parenting process of the Emperor Penguins, intimately documented by French director Luc Jacquet, will make your problems seem trivial.

Filmed entirely in Antarctica, the film begins with penguins emerging from the ocean and beginning a fifty-mile journey into the continent to a place where the ice is thick and the predators are few. A fifty-mile journey, for a bird that cannot even fly, sounds arduous enough. For a penguin, this is just the start of a reproduction process that lasts more than four months in the coldest spots on the planet.

There is something endearing about watching penguins. They seem cuddly and almost human like. So it becomes impossible not to feel for them, particularly since the camera takes us right into their colonies and gives us such an intimate look at their Herculean journey. Keeping an egg warm during the winter months in Antarctica is a daunting prospect. It is largely left up to the male penguins to keep the egg warm while the females hurry back to the ocean to feed. The females return months later with a belly full of food for the hatchlings. Meanwhile, the dutiful male penguins hang together for their mutual survival and the survival of the eggs they hold between their legs. For months, they hang together, endlessly shuffling around, back and forth, from the center of their group to the edges. It is one for all and all for one. With temperatures around a hundred degrees below zero Fahrenheit, they must all work together to ensure their joint survival. Along the way, these male penguins must endure more than four months without food.

Penguins, we learn, are monogamous, but only for one season. It is endearing to watch them go through their courtship ritual, and the great care they take maintaining the egg. One would almost accuse penguins of being stoic except they often seem noisy. Perhaps they cry to relieve frustration, or simply to stay warm. Yet when their job is finally done and the hatchlings have made it to the sea, it is “see you later kid, nice knowing you”. Mother and father quickly split and will likely choose new mates the next year. The hatchlings get to wander around the ice flows until they discover the sea and eventually learn to swim and find their own sustenance.

It is hard to know for whom to feel sorrier: the penguins, or the humans who survived such extreme conditions to bring this story to us. This film has little in the way of fantastic scenery to take our breath away, although the accompanying music helps tug at your heartstrings and Morgan Freeman’s narration adds to the film’s poignancy. The film does not really need spectacular scenery or terrific camera work. The penguins’ story more than suffices and is altogether riveting.

It is hard to watch natural selection at work. Some eggs of course do not survive. Older penguins that cannot mate are left to die. We watch a bird prey on the baby chicks, and a seal having a mother penguin for lunch. Despite these hard facts of life, the emperor penguin seems indefatigable. Though their mating time is measured in months, their devotion during that time is obvious and heartwarming.

This true to life film is something of a low-level movie phenomenon. It is not often that a documentary hangs around in a theater for more than a few weeks. This short film obviously touches a primal spot in us. Perhaps it allows us to channel a more distant past when we humans too had to battle enormous odds in order to survive. March of the Penguins gives an appreciation for both the difficulty of survival and the miracle of life itself. Though the world of the penguin is hard for us to understand and appreciate, we can nonetheless feel tenderness for these creatures and root for their survival.

If you enjoy this film, I can also recommend another French documentary for your enjoyment: Winged Migration. In many ways, this is an even better film. Winged Migration follow birds on their migration from northern to southern climates and back. Like March of the Penguins, it is astonishing in its intimacy. Somehow, the cinematographers managed to be next to the birds as they fly. (I assume they were using some sort of ultralight airplanes.) Both films provide intimate glimpses into the natural world from a hitherto unseen perspective. March of the Penguins is still easy to find in theaters. If you can find Winged Migration in your video store, you will find it equally compelling.