Consider the penguin. Mankind has been fascinated by this curious flightless bird for as long as its existence has been known. There’s an inherent charm to the little fellow. He pops up all over the place in popular culture.
Nearly everyone from my generation seems to have been exposed to Richard and Florence Atwater’s 1938 children’s book Mr. Popper’s Penguins, a now rather quaint and fantasticated tale of a house painter who is given a couple penguins by polar explorer Admiral Drake. (Amazingly, the book still finds its way into the classroom.)
In both the play and the film of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner, radio personality Sheridan Whiteside is presented with a crate of penguins as a Christmas present from Admiral Byrd. Bob Hope was the lower end of a vaudeville act with a penguin named Percy in My Favorite Blonde. Perhaps best of all, though, is the film of Stuart Palmer’s mystery novel Penguin Pool Murder, in which Robert Armstrong explains his fondness for the penguin (he would encounter a much larger animal the following year in King Kong): “They’re like funny little old men in dinner jackets — slightly drunk. They’re human without being offensive.”
That, in fact, may be the best assessment of the appeal of the penguin imaginable.
Now the penguin has a movie all its own with Luc Jacquet’s critically acclaimed documentary, March of the Penguins. The penguins in Jacquet’s film are the most spectacular of all, the emperor penguin. (I’m no ornithologist, but I believe the penguin mostly featured in old movies is the Magellanic penguin from South America.)
The emperor, up to 4 feet tall, is the largest penguin, and a true Antarctic creature, which the film whimsically suggests (at least in the American version via Morgan Freeman’s narration) was just too stubborn to beat a well-advised retreat when the continent went south and became the world of ice and sub-zero temperatures we know today. And a remarkable beast it is, as the film shows.
But that’s not what makes March of the Penguins such a crowd- and critic-pleasing success. Jacquet’s film differs from most nature documentaries by minimizing the more scientific aspects in favor of a slightly romanticized, humanistic (or penguinistic) approach. The harsh realities of life at the South Pole aren’t glossed over, but neither are the grimmer aspects of the penguins’ existence dwelled upon.
We’re given a couple of instances of the penguin as food for predators (ignoring the fact that the penguin itself is a predator where fish are concerned). But unlike many National Geographic specials, March never allows itself to become a depiction of nature as — in the words of Woody Allen — being “like an enormous restaurant.”
Jacquet has instead opted to take something of a narrative approach; the narrative consists of following the penguins on their march from the sea to their breeding grounds and on through the entire process involved in producing and caring for the egg and its resultant chick, through to the point of the adolescent chick finally going to the sea.
There’s a certain amount of romancing going on in the presentation, which tends to imbue the penguins with human emotions. That’s not too surprising, since part of the appeal of this upright bird lies in its peculiar similarity to humans. Still, the business of presenting instinctual behavior as emotion is sometimes a little forced. (That may be more the “fault” of the Americanized version of the film, since these elements are the result of the narration, which presumably differs a good deal from the French version, since it carries a separate writer credit.)
But it’s hard to argue with the results. Much of the movie’s inescapable appeal lies in its ability to make the viewer care about the penguins. It’s invariably engaging, entertaining and occasionally moving — something quite rare for a nature documentary. Moreover, the cinematography is little short of breathtaking, and some of the images, especially the night scenes, are simply gorgeous.
All in all, March of the Penguins is an amazing work that’s bound to delight most viewers. Rated G
— reviewed by Ken Hanke