NOW PLAYING: March of the Penguins

Posted: Monday, August 15, 2005


  Warner Independent Pictures' March of the Penguins - 2005

Warner Independent Pictures' March of the Penguins - 2005

I must admit, I have been more than a little discouraged by the Hollywood fare offered at the theatres this summer. Granted, they started strong with Star Wars and Batman, but since then it’s been one disaster after another. And they wonder why ticket sales are down. They wonder why some 70% of respondents indicated they’d rather watch a movie in their own home than at the theater. I’ll tell you why, and you won’t even have to spend millions on market research like the studios are doing. The movies they’ve been foisting on us lately are crap! I mean, they’ve just released Deuce Bigalow 2, for crying out loud. How did that happen? It’s also the reason that small gems, like the one I went to see this weekend, the entrancing and heartwarming documentary March of the Penguins, are such surprise successes. But no one should be surprised. It’s just that we’ve become so entrenched in the idea that the amount of money spent on a movie has some kind of magical correlation to its quality. That’s ridiculous. The programmer’s mantra, garbage in = garbage out applies to more than just computers.

However, rather than continue to rant about the sorry state of Hollywood, I should be reveling in the fabulous time at the movies I did have. March of the Penguins was truly a joy. At first glance, you might believe this to be just another animal documentary cranked out by National Geographic or the Discovery Channel. You know the ones I mean: Look at the (insert exotic creature here) in its natural habitat. Look at it feed. Look at it mate. Look at it get cruelly ripped apart by predators. Look at it overcome adversity to thrive yet again. The end. And I guess, in some ways, that’s exactly what it is. But, as we are informed by narrator Morgan Freeman early on, this is a story of so much more. It is a story of love.

Emperor Penguins are an interesting species of bird for many reasons, not the least of which is that they live in one of the most inhospitable places on earth; Antarctica, where the temperature regularly dips to -50F, and the winds can blow 100 miles per hour. For the summer months, the birds, in scattered clans, swim and feed in the waters beneath the ice. Then, in March, the birds emerge en masse from the depths and begin a truly amazing trek. They march (hence the title) in near single file, over seventy or more miles of unfamiliar ice (the flows shift with the melt and freeze of the seasons) to the place of their birth - the breeding grounds. You might imagine this grueling feat would be the climax of the story, but it is only the beginning, for the birds will make the trip several more times over the course of the winter, even after going without food for over four months - but that comes later. Once the birds arrive at the breeding grounds, they will find a mate and, with a little luck, produce a single egg, a precious treasure that must be guarded against the elements at all costs. The parents will take turns undergoing extreme hardship for the slimmest chance of bringing another Emperor Penguin into the world. I won’t spoil all the tension, but suffice it to say that we humans have it easy.

Animal lovers are often derided for what scientists disdainfully refer to as anthropomorphization. This is the tendency to ascribe human characteristics to things not human - cars, boats, penguins, etc. This film is a scientific study, and though you might imagine Morgan Freeman slipping little cutesy people qualities into the narration, he doesn’t. When he describes the actions of the penguins as pure, undying love, that’s because our observations offer no other explanation. The connection between father and chick is so strong you can almost see it with the naked eye, and the heartrending cries at the loss of a baby rival anything you’ve heard from Meryl Streep. Of course, on the other hand, penguins are so easy to anthropomorphize. They walk upright and wear a tuxedo for goodness sakes. And they really seem to be talking to one another, although my friend, who loves penguins and certainly knows more about them than I do, insists that what they are basically saying is, “Hey. Hey. Hey!”

I like documentaries, so I was pretty certain I would enjoy this movie, but I know some people get bored with them. However, a movie like March of the Penguins is destined to connect with just about any audience because the birds’ struggle is so narrative. There is a definite beginning-middle-end structure with highs and lows, heroes and villains, all done without pandering or falsifying the subject matter. It is truly masterfully done. Whether out of love for the animals, or as an antidote to the nauseating studio dreck, make an effort to catch this quirky little adventure before it disappears from the big screen for good. Grade: A

March of the Penguins is rated G, though there are a few scary moments of baby penguin peril.

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