Saturday 8 September 2007

March of the Penguins (2005) Luc Jacquet

While it's very easy to think of documentaries as a forgotten art, there are quite a number of them of late that seem to have acquired both critical acclaim and commercial popularity. This one won the Oscar for Best Documentary, and actually outgrossed all the films in the running for Best Picture. It isn't too hard to see why it was so popular, because the bleak Antarctic landscapes of Terre Adélie look stunning even before the first emperor penguin leaps out of the icy water and onto the ice. Soon he's joined by another and another and eventually thousands upon thousands of other penguins, all set on their long march many miles inland to mate. It works on a serious front but on a fluffy front too.

The cinematography is superb, even before you factor in how difficult it must have been to film in such a location; the soundtrack is perfect, aptly highlighting the storyline, as much as there is one, all along; and the narration, performed in the English version by Morgan Freeman, is informative yet drily witty. There are different versions of this film, throughout the world, and it seems they fall into two categories. The original French version, along with the German and Japanese versions, along with possibly others, has three voices, one each for a mother, father and baby. The rest have the single narration. Also the US version has a different soundtrack to what looks like all the others, by Alex Wurman instead of Emilie Simon. It's a very different approach, from what I read, but it does work. I'd be really interested to hear the original though.

The real stars of the show though are the penguins, as emperor penguins are full of character, their heads bobbing around as their legs waddle. They are also fascinating creatures: birds that can't fly, that live in the sea but walk or slide on their bellies inland to mate; whose females give birth but whose males take care of the eggs while the females walk another 70 miles or more to find food; who are fierce when needed but who cooperate completely as a colony when it's 80 degrees below, with an additional 100 mph wind chill factor, to keep each and every one of them warm by taking turns in the centre of a huddled mass.

The film works its way through a whole cycle, taking a full year, and it shows us everything of the cycle of life. It works from life to death, showing us the baby penguins who made it and those that didn't. We run the gamut from hope to despair, from love to loss, from teamwork to selfishness. What gives the film its added edge is that anyone who isn't interested in the cycle of life and the extremes to which these creatures go to ensure their survival always has the benefit of looking at the baby penguins, which are damnably cute. They may not be as cute as kittens, but they're pretty close, and it would take a hard heart not to flutter at more than a few points.

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