Release Date:  November 29, 2005
Rating:  G
Genre:   Documentary
Run Time:  85 min.
Director:    Luc Jacquet
Actors:   Morgan Freeman (narrator)

It is the coldest, windiest, driest continent on earth.  With the exception of one stalwart animal, during the winter it has no other inhabitants.  But every year, that indomitable creature makes a tedious journey, along with thousands of cohorts, to engage in an inexplicable – and deadly – ritual.  A ritual of life.

From the novice French director Luc Jacquet comes a captivating documentary, appropriate for the entire family, about the annual mating ritual of the Emperor penguin in Antarctica.  Jacquet’s crew teamed up with the French Polar Institute and spent an incredible 13 months in the South Pole, filming these strange and wonderful creatures using the ultra-expensive super 16 mm film.  Narrated by Morgan Freeman, the result is both magnificent and moving.

The Emperor penguin is the largest of the 17 species of penguins.  It spends its life on the ice-bound shelf of Antarctica, in the Southern Hemisphere.  Every winter, it travels even further south, away from predators, to procreate.  The journey across the tundra, which is made on foot and sometimes, on the penguin’s belly, is long and arduous.  The penguins follow one another in a line which can be seen for miles on end.  Even with the protection of each other, however, some die.  But the biggest danger lies ahead.

First, each penguin must find a mate.  They are monogamous creatures – at least for the nine months that it takes them to reproduce.  Jacquet portrays their pairing as very romantic with the birds nuzzling one another.  This and other anthropomorphic projections – or placing of human emotions onto animals –  may not be grounded in science, but they certainly make for good cinema. 

After mating, the female lays her egg.  She gives birth, then balances it on her feet, keeping it warm – and safe from the deadly ice – beneath a furry incubating pocket.  After several practice runs with her mate, she transfers the egg to him.  In the sub-zero temperatures, it takes mere seconds for the egg to freeze, should it touch the ground.  Many eggs do drop, and it is a pitiful sight to see the parents gazing at their frozen egg, as if grieving the loss.

More couples than not are successful, however, and so, in a curious role reversal, the male takes the egg under his care.  He will incubate it for the next two months, while the mother returns to the sea to eat.  During this time, temperatures drop to as low as -70 degrees Farenheit.  The wind blows 100 to 150 miles per hour, making it feel as cold as -150 degrees Farenheit.  To keep themselves warm, the males huddle together, taking turns inside the group to keep warm while the others brace themselves against the cold.  All the while, they continue to balance their eggs on their feet.

For the female, the trek back to the sea is even more difficult than the one she made to the mating area.  Having been without food for two months, she will have lost one third of her body weight, and even more of the ocean is now covered in ice.  She travels in this weakened state for as many as 70 miles.  Upon arrival, she will amply feed on krill found in the Arctic waters, diving as deep as 1,500 feet under water and holding her breath for up to 20 minutes.  However, she must be on the lookout for the predatory leopard seal, who is just as hungry as she – and who often takes her for his dinner.

After weeks of fishing, she returns to the mating ground, where she is greeted by her hungry chick and mate.  The male has now been without food for a full four months.  And, although many chicks will have died from cold or hunger – especially if the female has delayed her return – others will have survived by eating a tiny portion of food regurgitated by their fathers. 

Now, it is the male’s turn to go for food.  The mothers stay behind to watch their young and attempt to protect them from flying predators.  When they return, the females will go, leaving the males behind again.  And so it continues for many months, until the chicks are strong enough to survive on their own – and much of the ice has melted, making their trek to the sea for their first swim much shorter. 

Finally, after this long journey is completed and the birds are back home, they will swim and fill their bellies with fish.  Sometimes, only 20 percent of the chicks make it this far.  But the next year, those five years of age and older will begin anew.  They will have different partners, but their hope – and their commitment to survival – will remain the same.

“March of the Penguins” is a truly beautiful film, and Freeman’s voice is the perfect addition to this Americanized version.  The musical score is melodic and uplifting, and the cinematography is outstanding – even breathtaking.  In fact, so clear and colorful were the water scenes that I mistakenly assumed they had been digitized.  At times, the narration is overly dramatic, although this is due to the text rather than Freeman’s voice.  For example, Jacquet insists on calling this a love story.  Nine months of monogamy, after which the couple abandons one another – and their child – only to re-mate with another, just months later?  Ah, oui.  But he is French.  It’s a French love story!

Jacquet and his crew definitely deserve the Oscar for this film, and I have no doubt that they will get it.  However, it’s our Heavenly Father who deserves the most praise for this work of art – the natural one.  It was reported that Jacquet, a biologist, wanted to communicate a message about evolution with this film (as he briefly alludes, at the film’s beginning).  Fortunately, he has failed.  As I watched this film, I could see nothing but a visual masterpiece bearing witness to a divine and loving Creator who cares for even the smallest being.

I also see another of God’s purposes in this creation narrative.  Jacquet shows us, in all its splendor, the true role that fathers – both human and animal – were meant to play in families.  Although few are called to “birth” their young like the penguins (we women can only wish!), all men are called to be an active, ongoing and crucial part of their progeny’s birth and growth

It is the godly man indeed who could look to a penguin for inspiration.  Let it be, Lord.  Let it be.

AUDIENCE:  All

CAUTIONS:

  • Violence:   Conceptual only – narrator recounts deaths of male, female and chick penguins that may upset younger children.