No doubt about it: "March of the Penguins" was the sleeper hit of 2005. And a more unlikely hit one could hardly imagine.
If you've never heard of the film, it's likely you don't live anywhere near a movie theater, a newspaper, a television, or other people. The film about Antarctic emperor penguins took the public's fancy at a time when it seemed that only space ships and superheroes were making money. Who'd have thought that emperor penguins could compete with Tom Cruise, Darth Vader, and Batman? No, it didn't make nearly as much money as those shows, but it did take in about ten times more money (over $75,000,000) at the box office than it took to make it, something almost unheard of in the world of documentary filmmaking, at least in the world of nonpolitical documentaries.
Is it possible for a documentary to be completely objective? Probably not. Every documentarian has a point of view to express, as we all found with Michael Moore. In the case of "March of the Penguins" the filmmaker, Luc Jacquet, clearly takes the side of the bird. By the time the movie's over, the audience feels more like living with penguins than with other humans.
The first thing that may strike the viewer about the film is its soundtrack music, which is most-often quiet, tranquil, and haunting, getting more robust as the opportunity arises. Then one is struck by the grandeur of Antarctica, where temperatures can reach a blazing fifty-eight degrees when the sun is out. After that the audience can savor the narration (in the English version) of actor Morgan Freeman, whose voice should be enshrined somewhere and used as an example to all young speakers. Finally, we meet the emperor penguins, nearly a thousand of them, as they begin their annual migration inland to a centuries' old breeding ground. The journey to and fro is as remarkable a story as any in nature.
In March of every year this flightless bird walks in droves for almost seventy miles to mate. The long line of penguins across the Antarctic snow looks like a procession of waiters (or pall bearers), and makes for an eerie sight.
"Their destination," says Freeman, "is always the same," but their path is often different because of the shifting ice. How they find their way, no one knows. How do any birds know where they're going when flying south for the winter? The penguins alternately walk on their stubby legs (the shortness of will serve them well in keeping their eggs warm and safe beneath them) and glide on their bellies.
They return to the same place every year, the very place of their birth. It is, of course, a white-tie-and-tails affair. Once they arrive, they look for a suitable partner, and when they do, it's a sweet scene. Within a week most of them have found the one they are looking for. The new couple will stay together for the next eight months, ending in renewed life.
It's an incredible journey, but it's far from over. Once an egg has been laid, the fathers take over the duties of tending to it while the mothers trek back to the sea, another seventy-mile march, for nourishment. When the mothers return, it's the fathers' turn to head for the sea. All of this takes weeks at a time in the harshest possible weather. Not every adult or egg or baby penguin survives. Freeman notes that some of the older penguins will simply "fall asleep and disappear." Nor are the hazards of freezing temperatures the only things the animals must worry about, as starvation and predators (seals and other birds) are also of concern.
And you thought the life of a penguin was easy?
The film is filled with one extraordinary sight after another: The penguins in line; the penguins huddled together for warmth; the penguins tending their eggs beneath their perfectly adapted lower torsos; the landscape at eighty below, with winds gusting up to a hundred miles per hour. Then, when the little ones arrive, they are precious, with the reuniting of the families a most touching spectacle. Incidentally, they recognize each other by sound, not by sight. Each penguin may look almost identical to every other penguin, but their calls are highly individual.
"March of the Penguins" describes in vivid and moving detail the inspiring ordeal these birds endure. But there are moments of humor, too, as when two females try to dive at once through the same small hole in the ice. It looks like a scene from an old Laurel and Hardy movie.
Is "March of the Penguins" really any different from the scores of similar programs one can see almost any night on the National Geographic or Discovery or Nature channel? Yes. It's more delightful, better photographed (the cinematography is often stunning), more winningly put together, more poignant, and more majestic, as beautiful a documentary of its type as you'll ever see, with a thematic content that is continuously uplifting, reminding us again of Nature's complexity and its indomitable will to survive.
Warner Bros. engineers have transferred the movie to disc in anamorphic widescreen at a high bit rate in order to reproduce as accurately as possible the virtues of the many beautiful sights, but we still find a good deal of grain in the picture, no doubt inherent to the original film print. The image is slightly reduced from its theatrical-release dimensions, here stretching to a ratio of about 1.77:1 to fit a 16x9 television screen. The grain is most visible in the opening title shots and thereafter during long and establishing shots. Medium shots and closeups are mostly clean. Colors are few, given that the most dominant tone is white, but intense black levels set off the whites and the few other hues brilliantly, and close detailing has an intricacy and luster to rival high definition.
About the only things the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is called upon to reproduce are wind noises, music, and narration. Freeman's voice is well anchored in the center channel, while the musical accompaniment is nicely spread across the front stereo speakers, with ambiance reinforcement in the rear. Swirling storms find a realistic presence in the surrounds, but this is not a sonic spectacular in any way. The sound does all that can be asked of it, and little more is needed.
If you didn't get enough of penguins from the main feature, you'll surely get your fill of them with the two documentaries that accompany it. The first is "Of Penguins and Men," a fifty-three minute look behind the scenes of the shooting, with director Luc Jacquet and cowriter Jerome Maison. Their center of operations was a research base near the south magnetic pole for about thirty scientists who come there every year to study the continent and its wildlife. Naturally, this documentary is as much about the men as the birds, but like the main feature it contains some beautiful location footage and is thoroughly absorbing. Along with it is National Geographic's "Crittercam: Emperor Penguins," a twenty-three-minute documentary made in 2003 that provides more straightforward information on the birds. It is fairly typical of something you'd see on the National Geographic Channel, not quite so eloquent or affecting as the main feature. Lastly, we find a classic Looney Tunes cartoon from 1949, "8-Ball Bunny," where Bugs gets into an adventure with a baby penguin and even runs into Bogart along the way.
The extras conclude with nineteen scene selections, but no chapter insert; English and Spanish spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
"March of the Penguins" is the kind of film that I'd guess almost anyone would enjoy. Whether it's for the spectacular scenery, the amazing dedication and perseverance of the animals themselves, or the biological information to be found, there is a little something in the movie for everybody. Personally, I just like listening to Morgan Freeman talk. The guy should lease out his voice by the syllable; he'd be wealthier than Gates.