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March of the Penguins Review

By Shawn McKenzie 08/28/2005

Like the recently released Grizzly Man, nature documentaries are becoming big hits.  Also like that bear movie, I don’t understand why.  The huge hit (by documentary standards) March of the Penguins is pulling in a huge amount of dollars (it was made for an estimated $8 million and has grossed over $55 million as of this writing), but it still looks like something I could see on the National Geographic Channel.

Morgan Freeman narrates scientist-turned-documentary filmmaker Luc Jacquet’s film about the mating habits of emperor penguins.  Starting in March, the penguins march (or waddle, or slide on their belly when they get tired) from the sea where they live and hunt to the breeding ground, where they mate…more than 70 miles away.  This is across the frozen tundra of Antarctica, where the average temperature is 58 degrees below zero.  If any of them can’t keep up, they won’t survive.  Once they get to the breeding ground, they huddle up together to protect themselves from the cold and predators.  Even though there is food underneath, it is below a thick surface of ice, so they would need to march back another 70 miles to get it.  They rely on their fat stores to survive during the season.  Next, they choose a partner for breeding.  Since there are fewer females than males, the females sometimes fight amongst each other while the males just gloat on how cool they are.  As soon as they pick a mate, the movie shows what almost appears to be an animal love scene in slow motion (caressing, cuddling, etc.)  The penguins are monogamous…at least for that season.  Once it is over, they go their separate ways.  The mother penguin then lays her egg, and she keeps it warm underneath her feathers.  She loses about a third of her body weight producing the egg, so she needs to feed again.  Before she sets out to feed, she transfers the egg to the father, who will have to go without food for several months while protecting the egg.  If they don’t transfer the egg from mom to dad correctly, it will freeze and die.  The mothers go back to the sea to eat for the first time in three months.  They can hold their breath for over 15 minutes and can dive down deep to get the fish.  Unfortunately, some predators, like the leopard sea lion, hunt them as they feed.  They point out that two lives are lost…the mother and the mother’s baby, who won’t be there to bring back the food.  When the mothers return, the fathers then must go feed.  They transfer the babies from the father to the mother, but this time the baby chicks are out of their shells.  They have lost half of their body weight waiting for the moms to come back, so they point out that this is the reason why there are fewer males than females.  The chicks occasionally venture out by themselves, but they always try to come back to the mother to avoid the cold and other predators.  Some mothers who lose their chicks will try to steal another chick, but the other mothers won’t allow it.  The temperature eventually rises, making it easier to get to the sea quicker.  After five years, the chicks become adults, and they start their own march.

The movie was originally a French production with French voiceover actors (Charles Berling, Romane Bohringer, and Jules Sitruk) providing voices for the penguins as if they were characters (similar to 1989’s The Adventures of Milo and Otis.)  I wish that they had made it that way, instead of the documentary style presented here, but apparently it paid off.  Besides…it is always cool to listen to Freeman talk.

The photography in the movie is beautiful…but so is the photography in television nature docs.  That is why I am wondering what makes this one so special.  It would have been cool if they had presented it in IMAX format, because then it would have given more to the audience who are just there for the photography.

As I stated earlier, March of the Penguins is a colossal hit, and it is now the second highest grossing non-IMAX documentary of all time (right behind last year’s Fahrenheit 9/11.)  Unless Jacquet makes a stupid mistake by not submitting the film in the documentary category (like Michael Moore did last year for Fahrenheit), it will probably win the Oscar.  Its G rating makes it appropriate for kids, but just because it has the family friendly rating doesn’t mean that it will be entertaining.  Sure…the penguin chicks are cute, and it is funny to watch the adults waddle like little gentlemen in tuxedos, but it isn’t enough for me to want to pay $6-$10 dollars to buy a ticket to see it when I can find many similar documentaries on educational channels.  Money talks though, and I suppose that this March is one that most people want to see.


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