Can you find a connection between these three statements? 1. Hollywood complains that box-office is way down this summer. 2. When I was looking around for material for another film column that might interest America readers, I was driven to a month-old documentary about penguins. 3. Even with the matinee discount, the ticket cost $8, and the show began with 20 minutes of commercials. Does it take a Louis B. Mayer or Samuel Goldwyn to recognize the industry’s problem? As Homer Simpson might say, “D’oh.” And then he might pop another DVD into his laptop.
I’m not complaining about my journey to birdland. March of the Penguins won me over from the opening titles. Normally, I’m no great fan of National Geographic nature documentaries on television, which seem to be an endless repetition of things eating other things. Almost nobody gets eaten in this film. A leopard seal does make a brief appearance late in the film and finds lunch among the flock, but someone had to keep the franchise open. At least the film makers spared us the gory, gustatory details in order to keep the G rating.
Although the film has little violence, it is drenched in sex. Leave it to the French. Luc Jacquet, a biologist turned film maker, traces the mating rituals of the emperor penguins of Antarctica in fascinating detail. This is not the easiest place in the world to stir the passions, but a chilly atmosphere doesn’t deter the penguins. They are stubborn critters. As the voice-over narration by Morgan Freeman explains, their continent was once a lush landscape that supported all manner of plant and animal life. As the continent drifted toward the pole, all their neighbors left or simply died out. The penguins dug in their flippers and refused to move. They adapted magnificently to their changing environment and took sole possession of a land no one else wanted.
The story begins at the shoreline as winter begins to settle in. The penguins, we learn, are birds who harbor delusions about being fish. They swim on truncated wings that serve as fins and fatten gloriously on the abundant seafood near the ice shelf. After five years of pre-adolescent latency, the urge strikes them, and, like our mutual ancestors, the lizards, they pop out of the water and onto the ice to begin a 70-mile trip inland to find a suitable mate. The nonstop journey takes 20 days and 20 nights. While evolution served them so well in providing feathers and body fat to protect them against the cold, it let them down in another respect. In the water they move like manic submarines, but their stumpy legs and top-heavy bodies are ill suited to land travel. They waddle like grotesquely obese, stoop-shouldered waiters in impeccable tuxedos, and they are not beyond slipping on the ice and falling flat on their tail feathers. Also, their sense of timing is not so hot, since they start their journey in early March, the beginning of the merciless polar winter.
There’s method in their March madness, however. They are not as comical or foolhardy as we might think. They know that they need a secure environment for the ordeal ahead. Ice near the shoreline is treacherous; it advances and recedes with the seasons—such as they are in Antarctica. A shift in the ice cover could open a crack that would swallow both the nesting bird and the egg. Inland they can put solid ground under their bottoms, and what’s more, they pick an inland nesting ground that is located next to a huge glacier that provides some slight relief from the relentless wind and cold. As the camera cranes upward, the single-file line of march extends into the horizon as thousands, if not tens of thousands, continue their relentless journey across the snow into the interior. In a program note, I learned that the penguins have found only four places on the entire continent suitable for their amatory activities.
When they finally arrive, they turn the plateau into a vast singles bar. They wander through the crowd, checking out one another, and if they find someone who looks good, they engage in the ritual small talk. One can almost hear them ask, “Come here often?” The chatter is important, since sound enables them to identify each other, even after long absences. Once they make the commitment, they are monogamous, at least for the duration of the mating season. Away from the ocean, the penguins have no food supply whatever. It is not only the production of the egg that drains the hen’s strength and takes a third of her body weight, but she has not had food in over 100 days. To avoid starvation, soon after she lays her enormous egg, she entrusts it to her mate and begins a long trek back to the shore in search of food. Once she has reached the sea and gorged on fish, the hen waddles back to the nesting ground, where the male now faces starvation himself. During the family reunion, the hen disgorges enough nourishment for both her chick and her mate, who then begins his own urgent journey to the shore. By the time he returns, spring is near, the chicks are relatively self-sufficient and the entire flock returns en masse to the sea, where the families are dissolved forever.
The artistry of Luc Jacquet raises this story of survival to the level of art. His cinematographers, Laurent Chalet and Jérôme Maison, have created a beautiful palette of blue and white, and despite its horrifying bleakness, through their camera the landscape achieves a majestic but hideous loveliness all its own. With the use of telephoto lenses, they capture these magnificent creatures in remarkable close-ups. We see, for example, the delicate ballet as the hen transfers her fragile egg from the protective folds of her own body to those of the male. Their scaled claws cradle their precious cargo to keep it from contact with the ice, since the extreme cold would certainly doom the chick developing within. In addition to their high-tech cameras, the photographers have nature on their side. Since the penguins have no predators on land, they had no fear of their human visitors. They behave in front of the camera like eager contestants searching for their moment of fame on a reality television program, and some few even wander over by themselves to inspect their guests and their strange paraphernalia.
The narration, written by Jordan Roberts, raises this film several notches above the standard nature documentary. It walks that very fine line that invites personal involvement with the penguins, yet it avoids anthropomorphizing them into sentimental cartoon characters more suited to children’s fiction. It speaks of fidelity and self-sacrifice, virtues that certainly resonate in the human realm, without centering in on a particular pair of birds and treating them like a human couple. It points out the value of community by showing how the males, facing both starvation and bitter cold, huddle together with their eggs in groups of hundreds, taking turns in the interior of their massed bodies, and it comments that those separated from the flock will almost certainly perish. Thus it points up a moral without moralizing. That’s a rare accomplishment.
“March of the Penguins” was released in late June with little fanfare and has reached very few theaters in comparison with other summer films. Yet it has survived and produced respectable profits week after week in the harsh environment of commercial film marketing, just like the emperor penguins in the barren wasteland of Antarctica. If one has a taste for ironic parables, that may be the true moral of the story.