DVD Review Of March Of The Penguins

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/12/06


  Last year’s biggest surprise box office hit was not a horror film like The Blair Witch Project, nor was it a comedy like My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Rather, it was a National Geographic film that was not released as a television special first. March Of The Penguins, filmed by Luc Jacquet, was a French production, which followed a year in the life of the Emperor penguins of Antarctica, through their mating cycle, but it is not in a class, scientifically, nor visually, with the breakthrough French documentary of a few years back, Winged Migration. When I first heard of the film, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2006, I thought it was a remake of the little known English film from the 1970s, John Hurt’s Cry Of The Penguins. It wasn’t, and should not have won an Oscar, even though it is a nice little film, because it’s less a documentary and more a live action cartoon.

  Aside from that aspect of the film, which I’ll get back to, another part of the problem is that the film is too long, at 80 minutes, when it really should be the standard length of a documentary, under 60 minutes. A companion documentary, Of Penguins And Men, which did air on PBS, and documented Jacquet’s making of the film in Antarctica, and included as a bonus on the DVD, clocks in at only 53 minutes, and even that felt a bit stretched. Other features include a short series of sketches called Crittercam, which follows a penguin wearing a video camera, a classic Warner Brothers Bugs Bunny cartoon called 8 Ball Bunny, in which Bugs tries to escort a show biz penguin back to the South Pole, and a theatrical trailer for the film.

  Yet, length is not the only problem. The narration (screenplay by Jacquet) of the film, by actor Morgan Freeman, is both banal and a bit condescending, as if the whole project were directed only at children, and not adults. Part of that comes from the glossing over of both sex and death, in ways that most nature documentaries, from those old Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom shows to PBS’s current Nature series, do not. We see only a few seconds of a male Emperor penguin mount, if that’s the correct term for their odd position, a female, and only get one brief scene of a predator bird killing a chick, and several shots of old penguins succumbing to the cold, along with frozen eggs. Marlin Perkins would probably be spinning in his grave watching this saccharine approach to nature. Also, Freeman’s narration seems far too melodramatic, as if the rather dull story told needed spicing up with anthropomorphized references to ‘love’ and the like. While I fondly recall Freeman from his appearances on PBS’s The Electric Company show in the early 1970s, his film career has been a repetitive drone of mediocrity. He is always the ‘wise old Negro’ in his films, and this tone of all knowing condescension seeps through his reading in this film, and gets old really quickly. Even the opening of the film sounds more like a slick Disney film than a nature documentary. A better narrator should have been found, someone like actor Stacy Keach, who narrates many PBS documentaries.

  Oddly, this film has even inspired a political controversy, with Right Wing advocates claiming that the annual ‘monogamy’ the male and female engage in supports their view that the nuclear family unit is ordained by God, and that Emperor penguins are proof of ‘Intelligent Design’, even though they are clearly marvelous products of adaptive development. Gay rights activists have countered the Right’s claims by noting that female penguins often steal the chicks of other females if theirs dies, and that lower animals do not feel human emotions like love, but merely act instinctively, sometimes engaging in same sex sexual play- which is not ‘homosexuality’, which would imply that penguins are sexually turned on my male humans. Much of this misinterpretation of penguin behavior, as presented in this film, seeped over into the fawning critical reception of this film. Indeed, while the film is enjoyable, it is so only a Disney/Pixar level, for it almost plays out like one of those computer animated films, not a real nature documentary.

  Yes, the penguins suffer through conditions that would kill humans in seconds, seventy mile treks across ice, male and female sharing of the caring of the egg and chick, both of which would freeze if not for a warm parental pouch to crawl into, huddling for warmth in 125 mile per hour winds at -80° Fahrenheit, months of starvation, but these are not the makings of drama, because true drama requires conscious actors. Yet, many reviews of the film contain terms like ‘lovemaking’, ‘bravery’, and ‘fortitude’, only further confusing the boundaries between fiction and reality, even as the film never focuses on an individual bird nor couple, the way most documentaries do, knowing that is the way to emotionally invest a viewer in a story. Instead, this film merely relies on the cuteness of the penguins, and especially their fuzzy chicks., who, by summertime, will be abandoned by both parents, and left to fend for themselves for four years, before they return again to their birthing grounds, to give birth to the next generation of their kind.

  Cinematographers Laurent Chalet and Jerome Maison do get some incredible pictures, especially those underwater shots of agile female penguins swiftly trying to outswim a seal that’s out to eat them, as they try to fatten up on small fish, squid, and krill, to bring back and feed their chicks. Yet, the Emperor penguins transcend this film’s limitations. They are silly looking yet beautiful creatures: their black and white feathers are so densely packed they resemble the gloss on fine china, and the orange marks near their pates are so rich in color they dazzle in the blinding white of the ice, but the dull classical (or New Age?) musical score by Alex Wurman is one of the few aspects of the film that has rightly and universally been panned. Supposedly the original French version of the film had much more contemporary and apropos music by Emilie Simon.

  Regardless, while March Of The Penguins may be solid enjoyable kiddy fare, no adult should expect to be much enlightened, for the natural and documentary parts of this ‘nature documentary’ seem to have been CG’d to death. Check out PBS or cable tv for more science-based nature films. Spin, Marlin, spin.

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