If you’re short on reasons to be grateful these days, look no further than March of the Penguins, the astonishing if imperfect nature documentary from first-time director Luc Jacquet. Hard times may have befallen you, but at least you are not a penguin, an animal destined to repeat a devastating sequence of events every year, for nine months, in the effort to reproduce.
Singles bars may depress you, but you can always head for the car. The male emperor penguin, on the other hand, passes four months in the coldest, driest, darkest, and windiest climate on earth, where temperatures can fall to 100 degrees below zero and winds can blow at 100 miles per hour, and he does it with neither food nor shelter. Then, after 125 days, when the egg he has so carefully guarded hatches, the father coughs up a meal, a “milky liquid” he has stored in a fold in his throat, so that the chick might survive until the mother returns with provisions.
Penguins are notorious for having it rough, and Jacquet wastes little time in getting to the conflict. He begins the film in March, the end of the Antarctic summer, and follows the penguins as they begin their trek seventy miles south to their breeding grounds. Like so much in this visually gorgeous movie, marching penguins are something to see: a line of black and white waddlers, tilting precariously to either side as they lug their tremendous bulk across the ice. When they tire of that means of propulsion, they flop onto their silky bellies and kick themselves forward, as though they were swimming on land. And they don’t stop until they get there, traveling up to a week without rest. Why should they, when pausing might provide them with a modicum of relief?
There are two reasons to see March of the Penguins: the titular penguins and the cinematography. The penguins are hilarious and handsome and heart-wrenching, hundreds of tubby butlers wobbling out their rugged destinies. Perhaps because the penguins are unaccustomed to humans, Jacquet was able to get right up next to them, giving us stunning close-ups of their beaks, eyes, feathers, and talony toes. Even in the heart of the winter storms, Jacquet is there, filming the birds as they form a giant huddle, trading places so as to evenly distribute the best positions. (Heaven knows how they work that out.)
The cinematography, for its part, is nature documentation at its most spectacular. Few of us are likely to experience the grandeur of Antarctica firsthand, and Jacquet is generous with his camera, opening with crystalline shots of white ice and azure water, everything shimmering and stark and almost modernist in its sleekness of design, and giving us shots from every vantage point — long, short, and in between. He even goes under water to record the penguins’ speedy dives for food. It hardly hurts that everything is either black, white, or blue, with a hint of yellow (in the penguins’ cheeks) and pink (in the setting sun). What a palette!
Where March of the Penguins falters is in the voiceover, read by Morgan Freeman in the American edition of the film. Apparently, in the French version, the penguins were given voices, with either children or actors impersonating children speaking their “lines” (“Oooh, I’m coooold!”). At least Warner Independent had the sense to get rid of that. What they replaced it with is flawed, however. Freeman speaks in the deep, stentorian tones of the All-Knowing Nature Narrator, which isn’t too bad, though he could have dialed it back a bit. What’s worse is that the script is riddled with melodrama. “This is a story about love,” he informs us, and it may be. It might also be a story about like, or need, or compulsion. When one mother loses her chick to a storm, Freeman laments, “The loss is unbearable.” It does seem so — and that’s exactly why we don’t need to hear it from him.
Whether or not you think anthropomorphizing animals is a good idea, it’s certainly a good time, and part of the pleasure of many a nature documentary is to project our own emotions onto the actions of creatures who seem, at times, so similar to us. That’s why March of the Penguins would have better served its audience by leaving us the room to do exactly that. When we see the mother poke her dead chick and cry out, we’re very likely to imagine her pain, and it’s more powerful if we do.
The same is true for the script’s self-importance. We can see well enough that Antarctica is a marvel, and the footage is crystal clear on the penguins’ plight. Together, they are more than enough, and it’s frustrating that we’re not trusted with understatement. Of course, we could have had penguin voices — and that’s one more reason to be grateful.