March of the Penguins

 These penguins made a surprisingly successful march during the 2005 summer through the American box-office with more tickets sold than for many holiday films. Documentaries have to be very well made to excite the word of mouth that persuades people to come out to see a film. It seems that the penguins did not disappoint. There are millions of people out there who enjoy nature documentaries, who are devotees of National Geographic programs and the Discovery Channel who appreciate an opportunity to look, close-up, at a year in the life of the Emperor Penguins of Antarctica.

How they live in Antarctica and why they stay remains something of a mystery even after we watch the film. After all, the penguins in the summer comedy Madagascar, were escaping from New York zoo to migrate to Antarctica. It seems they think they were misinformed and so gave up the ice and snow and turned up in tropical Madagascar.

Antarctica is snow and ice and frigid water under the icecaps. The summer lights are long but still cold. The winter darkness, despite the Aurora, is long and long. To see the penguins marching single file over the icy wastes, standing day after day, week after week, huddling together to find some warmth while their bellies are empty and a enduring a long wait until they are filled again with the mother penguins returning from a hundred kilometre trek to the water to fill up on fish (and try to avoid death from sea predators), almost defies belief.

Director, Luc Jacquet, and his team spent a year in the Antarctic, filming a great deal of footage but not knowing how well their material had turned out because lab facilities were so far away. One can only admire the courage, patience and human endurance in remaining to film the story of the penguins. Much of the film is quite spectacular, enabling the audience to live quite easily and vicariously this experience of life and death, of birth and nurture.

The cycle of reproduction, of the laying of the eggs, of the fathers' protection and incubating of the eggs, of the mothers' foraging the food, the companionship of the surviving families, the growth of the chicks and their independence and the fact that the cycle begins again and the family never more see each other is quite movingly portrayed.

The English version has a voiceover by Morgan Freeman which brings great 'gravitas' to the events. Humans are prone to anthropomorphise animals and their stories, to make the parallels with human life, trying to see how animals are just like us. Christian groups in the United States have been recommending the films to their congregations because of the emphasis on family values.

The original French version actually has a voice cast of prominent actors (Charles Berling, Romane Bohringer) playing the dialogue between some of the enguins as does the Japanese version. How this works, or how cute it is, English-language audiences will never know. They have to be satisfied (and are, with good reason) with Morgan Freeman's commentary.

This may be a good moment to mention the French tradition of nature documentaries, especially for audiences who may not have caught up with Microcosmos and Winged Migration.

LONDON - 9 December 2005 - 550 words

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