March of the Penguins (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

March of the Penguins does what all good National Geographic documentaries do: it informs and entertains while providing interesting wildlife footage. Unfortunately, it's not cinematic. The issue isn't whether the film is worth seeing, but whether it's worth the admission fee or the trip to the theater - not when you can see something of roughly equal quality on a half-dozen cable channels. My goal is not to dissuade potential viewers from seeing March of the Penguins, but to suggest that they wait for it to show up on DVD or TV. (National Geographic provided funding, so its eventual destination is not in doubt.) Unlike other, recent naturalistic documentaries (Microcosmos and Winged Migration come to mind), there is little spectacle to be found in March of the Penguins. There are no moments of breathtaking awe. And the narration, read by Morgan Freeman from a script by Jordan Roberts, mixes useful information with half-baked and overwrought melodrama. ("The loss [of the chick] is unbearable!")

The film, directed by Frenchman Luc Jacquet, spends a calendar year in Antarctica, following the life cycle of Emperor Penguins over that period. Every March, as winter approaches in the southern hemisphere, the birds emerge from their watery playpen and trek 70 frigid miles across ice to the mating ground. There, they pair off before engaging in ritualistic behavior that results in the female laying an egg. While the male keeps the egg warm, the females return to the water to gorge themselves. By the time they return, the chicks have hatched. Then, it's the males turn to go back to the water. After several alternating round-trips by the parents, the chicks are developed enough to be left on their own, and the families break up. The circle of life goes on…

While I was intrigued by the story of the penguins, I was more interested in the process that the unseen filmmakers went through to get their shots. (We see a little of the behind-the-scenes process during the closing credits.) The temperatures, we are told, get to less than -80 degrees; how difficult was it to film under those conditions? Did the penguins cooperate? Were the underwater scenes shot using robot cameras? When the movie was over, I found myself wanting to watch The Making of March of the Penguins more than March of the Penguins. I'm sure there will be something of this nature on the DVD. Yet another reason to wait.

March of the Penguins shows some of the dangers and hardships faced by the birds. Some eggs are not properly warmed and never hatch. Chicks die of starvation, exposure, or end up in the stomach of a predator. Yet the "violence" is limited and sanitized. This is, after all, a G-rated motion picture - no need to scare off or gross-out the kids in the audience. From the documentary, however, one gets the feeling that penguin deaths are infrequent, unfortunate exceptions to the rule that send their parents into downward spirals of grief. I suspect this isn't the case.

My principal complaint is the narration. Morgan Freeman is a good choice to provide it. He has a voice that is comforting and authoritarian. It's no surprise that this is the third movie in less than a year where he functions as the narrator. (The other two are Million Dollar Baby, in which he has an acting part, and War of the Worlds, in which he does not appear.) But some of what he has to read... In an attempt to humanize the penguins, the script contains its share of laughable lines. In movies like this, a picture is worth a thousand words, and less talk would have been welcome.

March of the Penguins will appeal strongly to nature and animal lovers, but falls short of the mark established by groundbreaking movies along the lines of Winged Migration. It's suitable for family viewing, which makes it an alternative to the typical summer blockbusters. But I was disappointed. When I go to the movies, I expect to have an experience. This is just a TV show - admittedly a quality one - but a TV show nonetheless. Blowing it up for the big screen doesn't make it an experience.

March of the Penguins (United States, 2005)

Director: Luc Jacquet
Cast: Morgan Freeman
Screenplay: Luc Jacquet, Jordan Roberts (narration)
Cinematography: Laruent Chalet, Jérôme Maison
Music: Alex Wurman
U.S. Distributor: Warner Independent
Run Time: 1:20
U.S. Release Date: 2005-07-08
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1