March of the Penguins

When I was a boy, long before Bruce Springsteen sang about 57 Channels (And Nothin’ On), if we wanted to see a wildlife documentary, we had to go to the theater. Walt Disney Pictures cornered the market, and except for an occasional showing on the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday night, the only way to see Charlie The Lonesome Cougar, Rascal or The Incredible Journey was at the Saturday matinee, where we would gobble down Flicks and frozen Milk Shakes.

Cable networks like National Geographic and Animal Planet took the extraordinary and made it ordinary. You couldn’t escape week long tributes to Big Cats and Sharks. The proliferation made it almost impossible for a wildlife documentary to break free from the clutter and establish itself on the big screen. Almost. Challenged to make ordinary extraordinary, documentary filmmakers have been forced to go to incredible lengths to get us up close and personal with nature, and their efforts have reestablished the genre with incredible footage and amazing narratives.

March of the Penguins is the latest challenger to the throne, a breathtaking journey which does exactly what documentary films are supposed to: transport us and engage us in another world, one beyond our grasp. The images caught by filmmaker Luc Jacquet and his cameramen are not your run-of-the-mill wildlife footage but stunning, astounding, and at times unhappy portraits of mother nature at her proudest.

Every year the Emperor Penguin follows the same routine. After plumping up for a cold winter, the penguins, both male and female, march single file from the sea to their inland breeding ground. There, on a sheet of Antarctica ice, the male and female penguins mate. The females lay an egg, which is then protected from the elements by the male, who remains at the breeding ground while the female leaves for sea. They will later return with sustenance, but not before the males and the offspring face insurmountable odds and weather conditions.

Using a limited crew working under the same horrendous conditions encountered by their subjects, director Jacquet captures this annual pilgrimage with bewildering accessibility. Unlike wildlife adventures which take place in jungles or forests, the only thing that separates the filmmakers from the penguins is ice, lots of it, everywhere, all the time. There isn’t much wiggle room here, yet Jacquet and directors of photography Laurent Chalet and Jerome Maison always manage to put us right in the middle of the action.

What could have become redundant to the point of annoying instead becomes a joyous celebration of life in its most natural state. There’s something about penguins which make them naturally appealing. Perhaps its their Charlie Chaplin waddle, or their faux formal attire. Penguins are popular. Zoos know this, and used to put penguin pads near the entrance. They finally got smart and moved the penguins to the back of the zoo, forcing patrons to pass by all of the exhibits.

Call it penguin personality, something March of the Penguins revels in. There are moments of happiness, joy, adventure, and parents be forewarned, sadness. Not all of the penguins complete the circle of life, and even though we’re dealing with thousands of the species, its to the credit of the filmmakers we feel individual loses. We also feel like we’re part of the family, or at least the fly on the wall, as we observe the penguins engage in playful behavior. This invisible wall transforms March of the Penguins into a life-changing experience.

Like Winged Migration and Aliens of the Deep, March of the Penguins is a perfect example of how filmmakers not only have risen to the challenge made by cable television, but exceeded it. March of the Penguins is narrated by Morgan Freeman, whose strong, wise, solemn voice is the perfect compliment to the noble creatures on display.

Already an international hit, March of the Penguins is quickly becoming an phenomenon in the United States. How refreshing to sit in an auditorium filled with children who didn’t need singing-dancing penguins to engage them. Real life is much more interesting, and March of the Penguins captures real life with sincerity and whimsy.

Formal Attire Required

Emperor Penguins Get Marching Orders

March of the Penguins

A documentary by Luc Jacquet. Narrated by Morgan Freeman. 80 Minutes. Rated G.

Larsen Rating: $9.00

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