Every year, tribes of Emperor penguins (the largest of the species) trek 70 miles across the frozen wasteland of Antarctica to mate, give birth and propagate the species. The crossing traverses the most hostile, frigid place on Earth and scientist-turned-documaker Luc Jacquet, and his dedicated crew, records this truly incredible journey and more in “March of the Penguins.”
Narrated by the venerable Morgan Freeman, “March of the Penguins” is a visual masterpiece of never-before-seen images that is as stunning to look at as “Winged Migration (2001).” Unfortunately, unlike that astonishing documentary that both showed the many migratory birds and their annual flights and gave interesting stats about our feathered friends, March…” is all style and too little substance.
Jacquet and his team go to enormous lengths and hardship to follow the migration of the magnificent Emperor penguins and their travail across the worst possible landscape in the world. The accomplishment of this feat pays off with some of the most visually beautiful wildlife photography that I have ever seen. The details, from the start of the trek in March (the beginning of the Antarctic autumn) through the penguins’ survival during a winter where temperatures are way down in the negative numbers and winds exceed 100 mph, are nothing short of magnificently shown. The beautiful imagery of “March of the Penguins” is such that it is a loss to the viewer that it is not being released in the IMAX format.
Which brings me to the problems, at least from an audience attraction POV, with this nice to look at documentary. First, while Morgan Freeman has a rich, melodious voice, the choice of the actor as the narrator is a distraction. His recognizable tones drew my attention away from the plight of the penguins instead of bringing me into the story. The other flaw in the presentation of “March of the Penguins” is not enough information is offered to help us better understand just what these birds endure. Sure, some stats are presented but things like how many chicks don’t make it through the arduous winter are just not there. This keeps “March…” visually beautiful but short on info to draw you in.
The 80-minute runtime for “March of the Penguins” feels too long by 20 minutes. It’s easy on the eye and interesting for adults but misses the mark in appealing to all ages, which it easily could have. It’s a photographic masterpiece about a little known world but falls short of its potential. I give it a B-.
For hundreds of thousands of years, one of nature's harshest rituals has played out unobserved by human eyes. Only since 1950, when scientific bases were established on the frozen landscape of Antarctica, has man been able to witness the extraordinary "March of the Penguins."
When twenty-four year old Luc Jacquet, with a masters in animal biology, saw an ad looking for fearless biologist, ready to spend fourteen months at the end of the world,” it began the genesis for this film. However, the passion of the people behind it (the filmmakers' arduous working conditions can be seen over the closing credits) is undervalued by a resulting work which offers beautiful images, but leaves too many questions unanswered.
This French documentary was originally released in France with voice actors making characters out of one of the penguin families, a dubious idea which is, nonetheless, impossible to judge in the U.S. That idea was trashed for the American release in favor of narration provided by the Morgan Freeman ("Million Dollar Baby," "Unleashed"), an actor with too soothing a voice for this dramatic story.
In short, the Emperor penguin (we are not told that they are, at 3-4 feet tall and upwards of ninety pounds, the largest of the species) spends a few months of Antarctic 'summer' feeding in the ocean and the rest of the year battling extreme odds in order to reproduce. The penguins march seventy miles in subzero temperatures and fading light to their breeding ground. The next two months are spent choosing a mate and laying an egg which will almost instantaneously die if exposed to the environment. As the female has lost one third of her body weight producing the egg and has no food since leaving the ocean, she must transfer the egg to the male (many are lost during this delicate process, but we are not told how many) so she can return to the sea and feed, for both herself and the chick. The males must endure another two months without food in the harsh winter climate, keeping the egg warm balanced on their feet. They huddle together for warmth during blizzards where wind speed can exceed 100 mph. The chicks hatch under their care, but can only last a few days at most without food from the mothers who return about now if they were strong enough to make it to the sea and have survived natural predators like lion seals. The males, who have now lost half their body weight, return to the sea to feed. The adults continue to take turns trekking to the ocean until the chicks are old enough to fend for themselves, about four-five months before the whole process begins again.
The Emperor penguin is incredibly easy to anthropomorphize. The amazing shots of thousands of these birds snaking along in a line through the landscape makes them look like a bunch of middle-aged waiters trudging along. Their courtship looks (and is described as) 'tender' and 'loving,' the male and female touching lowered heads to form a heart shape. Yet the screenwriter may be going overboard in an introduction which informs us 'More than life or death, this is a story about love' - clearly this is about survival of the species - anything else is conjecture.
The photography is admittedly spectacular. Not only do the filmmakers record the most incredibly harsh weather conditions, but they manage to get quite close to their subjects walking, courting, transferring and incubating eggs. Submarines are used to contrast the birds' ease of underwater travel with their above ground slog. As daylight hours fade away in winter a constant aurora borealis lights the sky. Footage of the young chicks learning life after hatching is the usual delightful and comical type of nature photography that accompanies any species' babies, although a large bird that proves a danger to them is never identified.
This is the film's failure in a nutshell. With the narration provided, it has difficulty sustaining its eighty minute running time, and yet it leaves so many questions unanswered, so many facts unstated. In converting the French conception into an American one, it has rendered the film neither narrative nor nature documentary, but something undefined in between. As it stands now, this feature would have been much more successful cut down by twenty minutes and released in IMAX theaters.
And yet, there are plenty of questions answered and facts provided in the film's press kit that would have been welcome in the film. We often see the birds lie on their bellies and push themselves along with their feet, but not for long - why don't they conserve more energy travelling this way? Perhaps because of the hummoks, ridges in the ice that are difficult to walk across, let alone glide over. We're told that the penguins choose one mate a year, but not if they ever remate across years (some small number do). We're shown how the chicks must learn their father's call in order to recognize him when he returns, but not told that they can do it in .2 seconds through the calls of up to six louder dads. Most frustrating of all, we are never told what the success rate of the birds' breeding is (some years up to eighty percent of the eggs are lost). Environmental concerns are also never addressed in the film.
"March of the Penguins" is an admirable documentary with many beautiful images, but it is a misfortune that the filmmakers' urge to anthropomorphize their subject ironically makes the penguins' incredible struggle a bit of a drag.
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