March of the Penguins
Director : s Luc Jacquet
Screenplay : Luc Jacquet & Michel Fessler (based a story by Luc Jacquet); English narration written by Jordan Roberts
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 2005
Prior to this summer’s unlikely sleeper hit March of the Penguins, the most famous pop-culture penguin was probably Opus, the dumpy, naïve, and utterly sweet hero of Berke Breathed’s hilariously subversive comic strip Bloom County. In many ways, Opus represented the best in humanity, from a comical perspective of course, which is probably why Breathed chose to make him a penguin. There is something both inherently humorous and strangely noble about these flightless waterfowl, especially in the way they seemingly defy nature with their many contradictions. In one Bloom Country comic, Oliver, the resident kid scientist, comes up with “The Grand Unification Theory” to explain everything in the universe … except flightless waterfowl.
The beauty and the charm of March of the Penguins is rooted deeply in the way we project ourselves onto thousands of emperor penguins, who live and breed against the odds in the harshest of environments. The simple existence of these creatures goes against all natural logic, hence the humor of Oliver’s having trouble incorporating them into his “Grand Unification Theory.” Yet, they do exist and thrive, but only through what we as humans would call sheer determination and will, but the penguins understand as simple instinct. It is in their nature to do what they do, and to describe them as “noble” or “honorable” or “determined” says more about us and what we see as good than it does about them.
Yet, it is virtually impossible to watch March of the Penguins and come away describing these amazing animals as anything but. The film tracks the penguins over the course of a year as they go through the same rituals they have followed for thousands of years. Marching in a neat single-file line to a preset breeding spot, thousands of emperor penguins congregate, find a mate, breed, and then protect their egg until it hatches. Because the sea, their natural home and source of food, is 70 miles from the breeding ground, the mother and father penguins must take turns protecting the young while the other marches back to feed. At one point, this involves the father penguin going without food for up to four months, which is also unfortunately during the harshest days of the winter in Antarctica. Yet, somehow they survive in these seemingly unlivable conditions, virtually the only animal to do so.
Director Luc Jacquet and cinematographers Laurent Chalet and Jérôme Maison balance the film’s emotional components with gorgeous images of both the extreme geography in which the penguins live and the penguins themselves, who sometimes seem to be posing for the camera, craning their necks and interconnecting in ways that make them look like Georgia O’Keeffe paintings. Like all great movie characters, the penguins are more complex than they seem at first, and they sometimes surprise us. Their instinctual nobility is humorously contrasted with their physical goofiness -- waddling around on their short legs and flapping their stunted wings that look more like fins, they are infinitely amusing.
The film’s narration was penned by Jordan Roberts (writer/director of Around the Bend) and voiced by Morgan Freeman, whose voice-over work has been so effective in fictional films like The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and Million Dollar Baby (2004). Freeman has a natural gift for storytelling, the cadence of his voice shifting from humor, to irony, to pathos with only minor modulations; he never sounds like he’s trying hard at all, yet he conveys a vast range of emotions that give the story additional power and depth. This is, after all, a documentary about penguin mating, yet you come away at the end with the sense that you’ve just witnessed something deeply profound -- a true-life parable about the power of love and sacrifice to maintain life. No wonder it’s been such a crowd pleaser, especially in a summer that has otherwise offered little but explosions and more explosions.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 National Geographic