March of the Penguins


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.

2 thoughts on “March of the Penguins

  1. Sandie

    Good observations on the romanticization. And I would agree. Although I think that’s what set this documentary apart from others. The personification of wild creatures.

    I would recommend you watch the original french version(Le Marche de L’Empereur) with subtitles. Be warned however, the french version is more romanticized than the english dub. But the haunting music (english version dubbed the soundtrack as well) and the very unique personification of the penguins is quite enjoyable in my opinion, and the originality of this documentary is lost with the english narration.


    “The March of the Penguins” has to be one of the most beautiful documentaries in recent memory. Luc Jacquet, its director, takes us on trip to Antarctica where we are introduced to the majestic Emperor penguins. Mr. Jacquet and his cinematographers, Laurent Chalet and Jerome Maison, have done the impossible task to capture these penguins in their own habitat under conditions that seem almost humanly impossible to live, let alone take this team to register it for us, the viewers in all its splendor and bleakness.

    The Emperor penguins have to be the most elegant birds on this planet. They have such a noble way of standing and shuffling in almost perfect lines from the sea to the area where they will mate, hatch their eggs, and then have the females leave for the sea to feed themselves and bring back food for the new chicks. After that is accomplished, it’s the males turn to do their march back to the sea to feed and fortify themselves, returning to the hatching and mating area. What makes these penguins so unique is the sense of family they project at all times.

    Mr. Jacquet makes it clear for us to understand the behavior of the Emperors in their hostile environment. The English version has the clear narration by Morgan Freeman who expands on the way these birds live and how they are able to survive under extreme conditions. From what I have read about the documentary, the English version, which we are seeing in this country, has a musical score by Alex Wurman, that enhances the movie in unexpected ways.

    Antarctica, that icy white vastness at the end of the world, has never looked more majestic than in this documentary. Thanks to Luc Jacquet we are enlightened by all what we learn about the Emperors as they endure and survive under the worst possible circumstances and remain the graceful figures they are. Watching “The March of the Penguins” feels, at times, like being at the ballet watching a magical dance performed by these flightless birds that manage to look so dignified all the time while doing for us their amazing dance of survival.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *