A film review by Craig J. Koban



Rank: #17


2005, G, 80 mins.

Narrator: Morgan Freeman

A documentary directed by Luc Jacquet / Written by Jordan Roberts

Before I saw MARCH OF THE PENGUINS I never claimed to know very much about those Arctic creatures at all.  Well, I had a very rudimentary and layman’s concept of what a penguin was like – they looked like big, portly, and clumsy birds that waddled around in a ungainly manner that seemed to inspire contempt and laughter by other members of higher advanced animals.  Oh, they lived in the coldest places on Earth and liked to eat fish, I guess.  All in all, I always felt that they were strange and funny inhabitants of Antarctica that did not inspire much further investigation on my part. 

So, the idea of seeing an 80-minute documentary on penguins (emperor penguins, to be precise) did not prove all that appealing to me.  Yet, within a few mere minutes of watching the documentary I was amazed at what a transfixing, engaging, mesmerizing and involving work MARCH OF THE PENGUINS became.  This is not just a well shot travelogue of the most barren and cold place in the world, but it also is a serious and hypnotically alluring look at the mating habits of these odd specimens. 

What was even more striking was the type of emotional response this film had on me – very few films have a sort of transcending power (an out-of-body pull, as I have often called it) to make me forget my conscious surroundings and instead inhabit the events of the film.  George Lucas’ STAR WARS sextet and THE LORD OF THE RINGS films come to mind, but MARCH OF THE PENGUINS is kind of ironic because it inspired similar sensations in me...and it does not even take place in a galaxy far, far away.  The documentary has an otherworldly charm – we learn about penguins and their surroundings and what's truly astounding is that these seemingly alien environments are own. 

The documentary does what all great documentaries do – it informs and educates while being entertaining.  Yet, the march of Antarctica’s emperor penguins does not just make for some pretty and well-realized shots that anyone could have seen in a typical National Geographic magazine.  This film creates a sort of haunting, exotic, poetic, and beautiful rendition of the penguins.  Yes, they look funny and seem to possess no poise at all on their feet (there are a few moments in the film when a few topple over and invite our endless giggles), but MARCH OF THE PENGUINS is a much more intimate look at these animals.  The film is eminently passionate and creates such striking and beautifully composed shots of these creatures while they mate and care for they young that it spawns an unexpectedly striking magnificence and exquisiteness.  Sure, the film does make penguins undeniably cute and cuddly, but it wisely asserts itself and says, “There’s more going on beyond their quirky facades.”  You will definitely not look at them quite the same way after you see this film. 

If anything, this documentary correctly shows these creatures as some of the most durable, brave, strong, and ruthlessly determined creatures on Earth.  They may only stand about four feet tall and weigh about 80 pounds, but they are a fierce and underrated species in terms of their remarkable endurance to extreme conditions.  They manage to live, if they are lucky enough to do so, for twenty years and can begin mating by the early age of four.  Not only that, but they truly inhabit the coldest place on the planet – the daytime temperatures, even in the sunlight during the worst times of year, can be as cold as –60 or 70 degrees Celsius, which can feel even colder than that if you equate in wind chill factors.  So, on these levels alone, the film immediately fosters my newfound respect in penguins. 

Yet, that is not even the half of it.  These penguins just don’t live in the Antarctic; this film shows them, at times, struggling desperately to survive, something I never really consciously thought that they would have to do.  Sure, their summer months are spent in the warmer waters of the continent feeding and making themselves as full as possible for the upcoming fall and winter months (some images of well-fed penguins are almost cartoonishly amusing), but the fun ends there.  For some reason, whether it’s some sort of evolutionary trait, or a physical need on their part, they get out of the water and march for miles inland to find a perfect mate to “get busy” with and have a baby.  Sounds easy…right? 

MARCH OF THE PENGUINS celebrates, in astonishing detail, this yearly migratory mating ritual.  While doing so, it creates some amazingly epic and majestic shots that would have made David Lean proud.  Very early on we see the emperor penguins collectively begin to walk…or waddle…inland, and we are not just talking a few of them, but rather hundreds.  They all march in what seems like perfect unison and in single file, which the film displays in some truly breathtaking cinematography.  What is the most fascinating is that they all know precisely where to go every year, even if a few of them have never done so before.  The all have a sort of collective, inbred compass that manages to take them to their destination without much failure.  The fact that they waddle hundreds of miles, in the worst conditions on Earth, and do so without getting lost every year is a testament to the endurance and tenacity of their species.   

They then arrive at their destination that is populated by other penguins, which more or less all look identical.  Soon the emperors pick their mate, which in itself is miraculous in conception (they just seem to know which one lights their fire, I guess).  Then the mating proceeds, and it is here where the film crafts some unusually gorgeous and striking images.  Whereas the penguins before looked odd and ill footed, they now - in the mating process - create a sort of tranquility and harmony in their body movements.  They become creatures of sleekness and dignity.  It’s really quite poignant. 

Yet, this mating does not start one of those relationship commitments where one can just leave the other for good.  Nope, MARCH OF THE PENGUINS reveals that the penguins are among the most monogamous of creatures.  After two of them mate the female lays one large egg.  Now, ignorant people will just assume that the female will look after the egg.  However, it is the male that takes this task.  The female then carefully rolls the egg to the top of the male’s feet where it is then incubated by a thick fold of skin that hangs from the belly of the male (we see all of this in extraordinary detail).   

Then, the unimaginable happens.  The females leave the male and their eggs (talk about trust) and go back to the seas to feed.  The males are all left to survive, without food of any kind whatsoever, for a period of no less than three months.  How in the h-e-double hockey sticks do they manage to survive?  Instinct, perseverance, and a remarkable level of coordinated teamwork it would seem.  The males manage to survive by simply huddling in mass groups.  One of the most impressive and jaw-dropping shots in the film shows what appears to be hundreds upon hundreds of these creatures packed so tightly that, from a great distance up in the air, they look like a thick sheet of black carpet over the arctic snow.  To say that the men in these “marriages” get to short of the stick is a wild understatement.  The male does nothing for months – he just sits, incubates the egg, does not eat, loses half of his body weight (sometimes more) and struggles to keep himself and the unborn chick alive. 

The film is an unexpectedly emotional work as well.  It does not hide or shy away from showing catastrophe either.  Many of the male penguins do not survive which, in turn, means that the eggs will not make it either.  There is one shocking and heart wrenching moment in the film that shows how even the slightest crack in an egg can prove fatal.  The film further balances cuteness and delicate beauty with more passionate and disastrous calamities.  When the chicks are born they are undeniably cuddly, but they are truly born into the worst of circumstances.  While being brought into the world they are done so without food available, and in one incredible moment of painful self-sacrifice, the male emperor  essentially vomits up a soft mucus in its throat cavity for the baby to eat. 

When the mothers return the film continues to celebrate the astounding.  They manage to find their mates and chicks out of a sea of hundreds of them.  They do so without any error, which in itself is beyond belief – for them to locate their mates is one thing, but for them to spot out their chicks that they have never heard or seen before…that’s a power beyond conventional comprehension.   

This film has such an elemental and impenetrable power.  There are countless moments that moved me more than in any other film I have seen this year.  The vast shots of the Arctic landscapes have that sort of endless scope and aggressive and hostile splendor, and the individual shots of the penguins, as stated earlier, forge images of these creatures as being more than just silly little innocuous animals.  The film creates a level of cherished empathy and closeness with these creatures and is endlessly perceptive about the daily grinds of their lives that involves interspecies mating rituals. 

You become so inhabited in the film and its “cast of characters” that you grow invested in them.  The film manages to display one of the most touching and tragic moments of sorrow and pain of any film of recent memory.  Many of the baby chicks do not survive the elements, and the camera manages to catch up with one mother as she endlessly tugs at the carcass of her baby, trying to wake it up.  She painfully and subtly whimpers and cries during her vain efforts.  If this scene alone does not compel you to tears than I do not know what will.  MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, despite being a documentary, is also work of a strong, touching impact that many fictional dramas can never achieve. 

Perhaps what is even more incredible about the film is the makers behind it.  The film was made in what would seem like inhuman conditions by French filmmaker Luc Jacquet and his team of cinematographers, Laurent Chalet and Jerome Maison.  I am not sure what is more staggering – how they managed to survive the conditions to film the documentary or how they were able to achieve the next-to-impossible shots of the penguins themselves.  During the end credits we see some footage of these men, who could be rightfully labeled as crazy, desperately trying to climb over vast ridges of snow and ice to get their shots.  Considering that they created such a stirring and provocative work that is set in the most unimaginable conditions on Earth is an accomplishment in itself.  It would be acceptable if the images, in hindsight, were not crisp, clean, or stationary, but Jacquet and crew present visuals of such enormous detail and clarity that no pictures in a magazine could compare.  Some shortsighted film critics have complained that MARCH OF THE PENGUINS offers nothing more than what a Nature Channel TV show could have offered.  Yet, a film with visuals this grand needs big screen treatment. 

MARCH OF THE PENGUINS is one of the more unforgettable and lasting film-going experiences I have had in 2005.  What the film does so well is that it creates interest in creatures that I had no interest in.  These penguins personify Darwinian principles to there fullest and, despite their oddness, they are sort of perfectly and ethereally beautiful creatures.  The film informs, educates, and moves.  Even more crucially, it manages to make most adults feel like children again – it allows us to revert back to a younger state of mind and be absorbed and curious about the film's subject matter.  It should be also noted that the film is narrated by, arguably, the best actor alive at providing a voice over narration – Morgan Freeman.  His bassy and calm voice lends authority and significance to the material while being comforting at the same time.  He also very astutely encapsulates the penguin’s motivation rather succinctly in a few simple, yet eloquent words.  Despite the fact that these penguins migrate endlessly in habitual cycles for mates every year and try to survive in the most hostile and unlivable environments on Earth, Freeman simply states that the “march of the penguins” is really “a love story”. 

  H O M E