Luc Jacquet's “March of the Penguins” (French title, “La Marche de l'empereur” literally means “The Emperor's March”) won the Best Documentary Oscar Award and is one of the top-grossing documentaries of all time.
Co-produced by Bonne Pioche and the National Geographic Society, the film depicts the yearly journeys of the emperor penguins of Antarctica. In autumn, all the penguins of breeding age (five years old and over) leave the ocean, their normal habitat, to walk inland to their ancestral breeding grounds.
The penguins participate in a courtship that, if successful, results in the hatching of a chick. For the chick to survive, both parents must make multiple arduous journeys between the ocean and the breeding grounds over the ensuing months.
It took one year to shoot the movie, which was filmed around the French scientific base of Dumont d'Urville in Adlie Land. The original French language release features dialogue was “dubbed,” as if it were spoken by the penguins themselves. The voices were provided by high-profile French actors, such as Charles Berling, Romane Bohringer and Jules Sitruk.
In contrast, the American version was given a more straightforward narration by Morgan Freeman, which contributed to the docu's mass appeal. While the original version used an original soundtrack by milie Simon, the English language version replaced it with Alex Wurman's score.
The Emperor Penguins use a particular spot as their breeding ground because it is on pack ice that is solid year round, so that there is no danger of the ice becoming too soft to support the colony. It is also in a protected area, which shields the colony from winds that can reach 300 km/h.
At the beginning of Antarctic summer, the breeding ground is only a few hundred meters away from the open water where the penguins can feed. However, by the end of summer, the breeding ground is over 100 km away from the nearest open water. All the penguins of breeding age must walk this great distance, occasionally sliding on their bellies.
The penguins are monogamous within each breeding season. Life-long bonding would cause problems as mortality rates are high. The female lays a single egg, and the cooperation of the parents is needed. After the female lays the egg, she transfers it to the feet of the waiting male with a minimal exposure to the elements, as the intense cold will kill the developing embryo. The male tends to the egg when the female returns to the sea, now even further away, both in order to feed herself and to obtain extra food for feeding her chick when she returns. She has not eaten in two months and by the time she leaves the hatching area, she will have lost a third of her body weight.
For two months, the males huddle together for warmth, and incubate their eggs. They endure temperatures approaching -62C (-80F), and their only source of water is snow that falls on the breeding ground. When the chicks hatch, the males have only a small meal to feed them, and if the female does not return, they must abandon their chick and return to the sea to feed themselves. By the time they return, they have lost half their weight and have not eaten for four months. The chicks are also at risk from predatory birds such as Skuas.
The mother penguins come back and feed their young, while the male penguins go all the way back to sea (70 miles) to feed themselves. This gives the mothers time to feed their young ones and sympathize with them. Unfortunately, the fierce storm arrives where most of the chicks perish either by misplacement (the winds blow the chicks away) or they cannot stand the cold.
The death is tragic, but it allows the parents to return to the sea to feed for the rest of the breeding season. When a mother penguin loses its young in a fierce storm, it sometimes attempts to steal another mother's chick. At times, the young are abandoned by one parent, and they must rely on the return of the other parent, who can recognize the chick only from its unique call. Many parents die on the trip, killed by exhaustion or by predators (Leopard Seal), dooming their chicks back at the breeding ground.
The parents must then tend to the chick for an additional four months, shuttling back and forth to the sea in order to provide food for their young. As spring progresses, the trip gets progressively easier, until finally the parents can leave the chicks to fend for themselves.
The first screening of “March of the Penguins” took place at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.
The docu was released in France the next week, on January 26, where it earned a 4-star rating from AlloCin, though it was beaten at the box office by Scorsese's biopic “The Aviator” during its opening week.
The film was released on DVD in France in July 2005. The DVD extras address some of the criticisms the movie had attracted, most notably by reframing the film as a scientific study and adding facts to what would otherwise have been a family movie.
An English language version was released in North America on June 24, 2005, which drew praise from most critics who found it both informative and charming (it has received an enviable 95% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which collects movie reviews).
The docu became one of the most successful films of the season, and the second most successful documentary released in North America, after Fahrenheit 9/11, grossing over $77 million in the U.S. and Canada.
Nature docus are released quite regularly, but most do not perform as well in the marketplace or garner such critical recognition.
Previously, the French docus Microcosmos and Winged Migration, did well with critics and viewers.
Morgan Freeman's narration is also credited with the movie's success. Other documentaries shown on the Discovery Channel or the National Geographic Channel benefited ftom star narrations. For example, Edward Norton hosted National Geographic's Strange Days on Planet Earth.
The movie engaged audiences emotionally and thematically. Even before winning the Oscar, the movie became an event. It was more successful than any of the films nominated for Best Picture. Thanksgiving weekend, 2006, The Hallmark Channel played the film, which turned out to be Hallmark's best day for viewers ever.
The spectacular success of this film benefited the 2006 animated film about penguins, Happy Feet, which was in production when March of the Penguins was released. Taking advantage of the public interest in penguins the documentary encouraged, Happy Feet debuted as the top film in the U.S. on its opening weekend.
In 2007 a direct-to-DVD parody written and produced by Bob Saget called “Farce of the Penguins” was released. It is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and features other stars providing voice-overs for the penguins. Although the film uses footage from actual nature documentaries about penguins, permission was denied for using footage from “March of the Penguins.”
In November 2006, the film was adapted into a video game by DSI Games for the Nintendo DS and Game Boy Advance platforms. It features Lemmings-like gameplay.
The title for the March of the Sand Creepers episode of The Land Before Time, based on The Land Before Time films, is a parody of March of the Penguins.
The docu generated socio-political commentary in which penguins were viewed anthropomorphically as having similarities with human society.
The film was praised for promoting conservative family values by showing the value of stable parenthood. But critic Andrew Sullivan pointed out that the penguins are not in fact monogamous for more than one year; they actually practice serial monogamy.
Other commentators such as Matt Walker pointed out the dark side of penguin life: Penguin 'adoptions' of chicks are kidnappings, weak chicks are frequently the victims of infanticide, albino penguins are ostracised and attacked and that prostitution is practiced by at least one species of penguins.
Docu's director Luc Jacquet rejected such comparisons between penguins and humans. Asked to comment on the film's use as “a metaphor for family values–the devotion to a mate, devotion to offspring, monogamy, self-denial”, Jaquet said: “I condemn this position. I find it intellectually dishonest to impose this viewpoint on something that's part of nature. It's amusing, but if you take the monogamy argument, from one season to the next, the divorce rate, is between 80 to 90 percent… the monogamy only lasts for the duration of one reproductive cycle. You have to let penguins be penguins and humans be humans.”
Major Nominations and Awards
Academy Award for Documentary Feature.
American Cinema Editors, Best Edited Documentary: Sabine Emiliani
Broadcast Film Critics Association, Best Documentary
Csar Awards, Best Sound, Laurent Quaglio, Grard Lamps
National Board of Review, Best Documentary
Nominated for Writers Guild of America (WGA), Documentary Screenplay Award: Jordan Roberts (narration written by), Luc Jacquet (screenplay/story), Michel Fessler (screenplay)