You can't blame Warner Bros. for releasing their 2005 Oscar-winning documentary "March of the Penguins" in high definition at the same time they released their 2006 Oscar-winning animated feature film "Happy Feet." After all, penguins belong together. What's more, they (the birds and the movies) look even better in HD-DVD than they did in standard-def. So, both films are welcome additions to an HD-DVD library.
One can understand the public loving "Happy Feet." It was about singing, dancing, talking penguins. But "March of the Penguins" was a sleeper hit, an unexpected success. I mean, who'd have thought so unlikely a film as a real-life documentary about these amazing birds would be so popular?
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. Emperor penguins competing with Tom Cruise, Darth Vader, and Batman? No, it didn't make nearly as much money as those pictures, 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 ones.
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 out with Al Gore and 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 is 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.
Freeman says "...this is a story of survival, a tale of life over death. But it's more than that, really. This is a story about love." In March of every year these flightless birds walk in droves for almost seventy miles to mate and then to care for their offspring. 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 find one, it's a sweet scene. Within a week, most of them have found the mate 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 finished. 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 an 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 (a co-producer of the movie) or Discovery or Nature channels? 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 did a pretty good transferring the movie to disc in standard definition, and they do an equally good job with the HD-DVD. But you have to realize that the movie is a documentary, after all, and it was shot on location, not made inside a computer as "Happy Feet" was.
There is a good deal of photographic film grain inherent to the original print, and it shows up (just as it should) in high definition. If you saw this picture on a big motion-picture screen, the grain would be there, too, so you live with it. On disc the image is slightly reduced from its 1.85:1 theatrical-release dimensions, here stretching to a ratio of about 1.78:1 to fit a 16x9 television. The grain I mentioned is most visible in the opening titles and then during long and establishing shots. Medium shots and closeups are relatively clean. Colors are limited mainly to blacks and whites, and it's here that the HD-DVD contrasts are most evident, the black levels being quite intense and showing off the whites and the few other hues brilliantly. (Here is also where an HD television with deep black levels helps a lot and where many LCD sets, with their grayish tones, won't measure up.) The HD-DVD detailing is, of course, better than in the SD version, as we would expect, though it is not dramatic; it is just enough to ensure that the gorgeous cinematography never goes to waste. I'd say the HD-DVD/VC1 transfer is as good as it could be, given the circumstances.
Remember, again, that this is a documentary. The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 sound mainly has to reproduce narration, background music, and a few environmental noises like those of the animals and the wind. The engineers have anchored out Freeman's voice in the center speaker, while the musical accompaniment has a nice front-channel stereo spread, with a touch of ambiance reinforcement in the surrounds. The DD+ does its job improving upon regular Dolby Digital in terms of cleanness and clarity, with a sharp, quick transient response and a taut bass. Although the audio is nothing like a sonic spectacular in any way, we do hear the sounds of storms realistically swirling in the rear speakers.
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, both of which are presented in standard definition. The first documentary 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 about 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 theatrical trailer, followed by the 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 real bonus here, though, is that the cartoon is in 1080 resolution.
The extras conclude with nineteen scene selections, but no chapter insert; English and Spanish spoken languages; English and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. Needless to say, we also get WB's usual complement of HD-DVD bonuses, like bookmarks, an indicator of elapsed time, a zoom-and-pan feature, and an Elite Red HD case.
"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, the biological information to be found, or just the beauty of the HD-DVD reproduction, 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.