March of the Penguins

For genuine drama, action, and emotion, stay away from Hollywood's summer actioners and rush to see Luc Jacquet's moving documentary, “March of the Penguins,” which is now in wide release, breaking box-office records. Among other merits, “Penguins” is the shortest—only 80-minute-long—but also densest, most heartfelt movie of the summer.

Deservedly embraced by critics and audiences, “Penguins” has grossed to date $38 million and is still riding high. Warner Independent paid about $1 million to acquire the docu and spent an additional $600,000 to rework the film for its U.S. release; the American version includes an instructive narration by Morgan Freeman. In terms of input-output ratio, “Penguins” is therefore the most profitable movie of the summer, and probably of the whole year.

The life of the emperor penguin is one of continuous struggle and against-all-odds adaptability in one of the world' s toughest region, cursed with the worst weather imaginable. The docu chronicles a year in the life of penguins that grow to 3 or 4 feet in height, and whose weight ranges from 60 to 90 pounds; their short legs make them slow walkers.
Emperor penguins, who make their home in Antarctica, can't fly but they can swim, as they do in the summer in their ocean habitat, eating fish, squid and crustaceans.

It's an amazing journey, never before captured on camera with such detail, depth, empathy, and beauty. At heart, “Penguins” is a gripping survival tale of epic proportions. It's the story of life against death, a story that nature itself had written. Since every year, there are fewer males, the very survival of the species is in danger.

Narrator Freeman outlines the hardships as we watch the males shelter the eggs under their potbellies, protecting them against snowstorms, while the females head back to the water for food. Some eggs are exposed to the elements, and some females never make it back. The movie never shies away from the painful reality of death, which is quite prevalent.

There's a lot to learn from the penguins' behavior, both in normal times, which are never easy, and under duress, which is most of the time. The most shocking element to me was gender-related, how much more progressive the penguins' conduct is when it comes to sexual politics and division of labor between males and females.

When it's time for the penguins to breed, they need to reach their breeding ground inland, a place where the ice is solid and few predators will bother them. In March, as winter approaches in Antarctica, throngs of emperor penguins belly-flop onto the ice, trekking dozens of miles across a frozen landscape through blizzards and nasty winds, to reach the spot where they can mate and raise their young.

Once they turn 5, they dedicate their lives over to continuing the species, which means 70-mile treks to breeding grounds, finding a mate, laying the egg, keeping it warm against brutal conditions, marching back to an ice break to get food, hiking back to the breeding grounds to feed the young ones, and fending off predators and the elements.

The docu begins at the end of the summer, with the penguins leaving the sea and traveling 70 miles to their breeding grounds, where the ice is stable and the land offers protection from the brutal winds.

Once there, they engage in courtship to find mates to breed with. The female lays an egg and transfer it to the male, who cradles it atop his feet. Then the future mother makes a trip to the sea for food and back again. The clock is ticking fast: She must be back at the breeding ground in time to feed her newborn, or else the baby will die. The sight of dead babies, frozen to death, is heartbreaking.

At the end, the summer returns and the ice begin to melt. The family returns to the sea, and for a while living conditions become more manageable, though they still face the danger of being attacked by predators undersea.

Jacquet and his team have turned the penguins into three-dimensional characters contained in a harsh drama with romantic overtones. Indeed, several lyrical sequences depict the romantic rapture between the penguins once they mate, showing how they staring longingly and lovingly into each other's eyes.

Throughout, the emphasis on group dynamics and collective behavior. If the emperor penguin lives an isolated individual life, he simply can't survive. One penguin is presented near death, and when the death occurs, there's feeling of empathy and deep sorrow.

The story of the director's involvement in the project is just as interesting as that of his subjects. About a decade ago, Jacquet, then a student of biology in Lyon, answered an ad that called for a “fearless biologist ready to spend fourteen months at the end of the world.”

At that time, he knew nothing about penguins and Antarctica. But after the first trip, he returned several time to shoot the harsh continent's wildlife and landscape, where the temperatures drop to 70 degrees below zero, and the winds soar to 150 miles per hour; in the winter, the sun may shine for an hour or two. Jacquet spent 14 months in Antarctica on his first visit. He left academic world when he discovered the joys of outdoor filmmaking.

The filmmakers shot about 140 hours of footage, which were then reduced to an 80-minute film. But “Penguins” is not a typical National Geographic documentary for it contains elements of romance, suspense, action, and melodrama. One of the film's touching scenes describes how a penguin whod just lost her baby tries to grab another one, and how the other penguins organize to protect the birth mother.

Cinematographers Laurent Chalet and Jerome Maison lived for 13 months on a pre-existing base run by the French Institute for Polar Research. They shoot from the penguins' height–the birds are afraid of taller things than themselves. Gradually, they get closer and closer to the action. At the end, having gained the penguins' trust, the lensers are just 3 or 4 feet from their subjects.

Jacquet's gorgeous photography captures these strange creatures in a natural yet magical way. You will be taken by the simplicity and purity of the colors, almost everything is in two colors, white and blue, and there is no grass or any vegetation. Visually, his style alternates between expansively wide and long shots of the landscape and amazing close-ups that reveal the penguins' psyches and souls.

As much as I like the birds documentary, “Winged Migration,” which is almost silent, I think “March of the Penguins” represents a greater achievement.

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