La marche de l'empereur (2005)

MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (La Marche de l’Empereur)

(director/writer: Luc Jacquet; screenwriters: based on a story by Luc Jacquet/Michel Fessler/narration written by Jordan Roberts; cinematographers: Laurent Chalet/Jérôme Maison; editor: Sabine Emiliani; music: Alex Wurman; cast: Morgan Freeman (Narrator); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: G; producers: Yves Darondeau/Christophe Lioud/Emmanuel Priou; Warner Independent Pictures and National Geographic Feature Films; 2005-France-in English)
“A wonderfully moving nature film that is both informative and entertaining.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A wonderfully moving nature film that is both informative and entertaining, much like a Discovery Channel documentary, following a colony of three-foot-tall Empire penguins of Antartica (about a thousand) and their survival and mating during the course of a year (from the end of the Antarctic summer in February, a time when the sea ice is melted, to the following February) in a place that is known for having the most inhospitable climate in the world. The highlight of the film is to watch these winged creatures, who can’t fly, walk like humans over the icy terrain in temperatures of 80 degrees below zero and in 100-mile-per-hour winds as they are determined to march together (alone they could not survive the cold, as in a group they can huddle together to gain some needed warmth) to their nesting ground as their ancestors have done for thousands of generations (ever since they chose to remain in Antarctica and not relocate like other creatures when the area’s climate changed in the distant past).

“March of the Penguins” makes a good companion piece to another French documentary production “Winged Migration.” Commenting in the English language version (there’s also a French version) is the mellifluously-voiced Morgan Freeman, whose witty narration was written by Jordan Roberts. The only problem I had with the script, was that it unnecessarily allows us to anthropomorphize the penguins when their survival story was really the incredibly amazing and grim true story that had to be told. The tacked on love story seemed too arbitrary, cutesy and manipulative for my taste. But that doesn’t diminish the great job done by French filmmaker Luc Jacquet, a trained biologist, who wrote the story about the breeding cycle of the Emperor penguin and films them without the use of CGI or any of those other gimmicky special effects. Jacquet lets us see for ourselves the real and majestic penguins as they march to find a mate, whom they pick in some mysterious way that is beyond our present understanding, and if successful the female will pass the single egg (one egg to a couple) onto the male to shelter from the cold by making a pouch between their claws and belly. If the egg is exposed even for a short time to the cold, it will not survive. When the birth is completed in mid-July after a three-month gestation period, Pop keeps the chick warm while Mom marches the seventy or so miles back to the sea to get food (all kinds of fish) and then they return to feed the little ones by regurgitating the food down their throats. Meanwhile dad survives all this time without putting down a meal since the time they left the sea, and when the time is ripe all the Pops will march back together to their home near the sea as they complete their obligation to keep the species alive and leave the Moms in charge of the parenting. Pop goes sea diving to get some fish food to relieve his hunger pangs after months of nearly starving, and when the time becomes right for the young ones to travel again Mom will bring them home to reunite with Pop. To ensure that their offspring will recognize them again, the Pops makes sure they each know what their distinct voices sound like. This crop of youngsters will wait by the sea for four years before they venture out to go through the same mating yearly cycle their parents just completed; most will never see their parents again, because when they become strong they can fend for themselves.

In these glacially stunning surroundings, a place that seems impossible to sustain any form of life, we can see that the penguins are a fascinating study in the true meaning of family values as they are willing to sacrifice themselves in caring for their offsprings. Their pains are heartfelt when we see them losing a chick to the weather or a predator (the leopard seals) or if the timing is off and Mom doesn’t arrive in time to feed her starving chick. It seems we humans do indeed have things to learn from our penguin friends of the north about caring for others, family responsibilities and being brave when things get tough. In this documentary, we see both wonderful and grim things about penguins we couldn’t have by just catching them in a zoo.


REVIEWED ON 7/24/2005 GRADE: B +