As I noted in my review of Grizzly Man, some people have a tendency to imbue animals with human characteristics that they don’t possess. The writers of March of the Penguins indulge in this minor foible on occasion, speaking of the “unbearable” loss of a chick or the “joyous” reunion of a penguin family. While it’s likely that penguins possess instincts similar to ones that a few million years of evolution honed into human emotions, it’s not accurate to describe them in explicitly human terms. Of course, human terms are the only ones we have to work with.
Still, if ever there was a member of the animal kingdom that invites comparison to Homo sapiens, outside of our closest evolutionary cousins, the great apes, it would have to be these comical-looking flightless birds of Antarctica. With their perpetually quizzical expression and formal-wear coloring, a colony of Emperor penguins looks like a casting call for a Chaplin movie. It’s hard not to be tickled as they waddle about like a Kennedy with his pants around his ankles or skim across the ice on their belly like a bodysurfing butler. Only in the water do they acquire any grace, dashing around like a tuxedoed torpedo.
March of the Penguins explores the grueling mating cycle of the Emperor penguin, where the adults trudge seventy miles to their nesting grounds before the onset of winter. After choosing mates and laying their eggs, the females return to the sea for food while the males stay with the egg, going four months without eating and enduring temperatures that reach eighty below zero Fahrenheit before you factor in the hundred-mile-an-hour wind.
Even if the father, the egg and the chick survive the storms, they still depend on the mother to evade ocean predators and make it back across the ice with food for the newborn. If she doesn’t make it back, the father will be forced to abandon the helpless chick or face starvation himself.
Even if the chick survives it still faces the twin hazards of predators and kidnapping by the mothers of chicks that have not survived. After the mothers return, the fathers began their desperate trek back to the sea for food. After four months without eating, many of them can’t make it. This brutal ritual of self-sacrifice probably helps explain why the female penguins outnumber the males.
Watching this remarkable documentary, I found myself marveling at two things other than the arduous life cycle of these birds. Beyond the forbidding beauty of the Antarctic landscape, as desolate as an alien planet, there is the mere fact that a human camera crew endured the same conditions. When you consider what a painstaking process that nature documentary filmmaking can be, where days of filming can be required to capture just a few minutes of usable footage, and then factor in the potentially lethal weather conditions, you have to raise a glass to director Luc Jacquet and his crew for their sheer audacity, guts and fortitude.
Morgan Freeman‘s narration is effective, even if the language he is given is often a bit florid and over-romanticized. This is a case when a little bit less would have been a whole lot more, but that’s a fairly minor quibble. March of the Penguins still does an amazing job of communicating a story of survival in the face of nature’s cruel, heartless beauty.