Penguins! Penguins! Penguins! With a feverish but subtle fascination we humans made a march of our own to theaters this summer to take in the surprise success of the year, March of the Penguins. Now the tide is somewhat turned and as winter descends on America the film begins its invasion of our homes on DVD. Given the movie’s popularity with kids the disc will no doubt be a popular item on many Christmas wish lists, but the adults love it too. It’s no wonder why: this is a wonderful film.
According to the dictionary, a documentary film is a movie that presents information objectively without adding anything fictional or any editorials. I suppose that means Michael Moore has never made a documentary in his life. March of the Penguins doesn’t quite qualify either, but not due to the same gross interferences and moralizing that Moore interjects in his projects. This isn’t so much a documentary as the telling of a story, a very real and true one. It’s a beautiful tale that strikes a chord with the human heart because on some level it is very similar to our own. It’s a story about family.
Penguins live in some of the harshest conditions on the planet and to survive in them they annually engage in a familial ritual that allows them to breed and raise their young against terrible environmental odds. Whatever force you believe forged this planet and its inhabitants, there is no denying that the dedication, perseverance and teamwork exhibited by these creatures is captivating and inspiring.
The penguins themselves are at the heart of the story, but like any good movie there are critical elements that have been added to create an engaging and epic film. Additives like score, backdrop and narration have been blended seamlessly in with the footage of the birds to enhance, and in some ways influence, the story being told. Sure, it diminishes the objectivity of the movie somewhat, but not so much that it masks or tarnishes the natural beauty and tragedy of the penguin lifestyle.
Footage of the birds and their surroundings are the core of the film. Laurent Chalet and Jérôme Maison, the two cinematographers who devoted a year of their life to living among the penguins, are phenomenal artists who know their medium and their subjects. The shots throughout the film are at various times evocative, humbling, chilling, mesmerizing, enchanting, enthralling, saddening and awe inspiring. We, the audience, get the chance to see some of Antarctic nature’s most glorious and gorgeous scenes. It’s a treasure to be sure.
Alex Wurman gives the film an incredible touch with his absolutely stunning and effective score. As someone who listens intently for music in movies I often notice that many composers try too hard to create a moment or mood and the result is miserable. Wurman was tasked with creating a musical representation not only of the penguin’s adventure but for the whole of the Antarctic presence. He understands the fragility of a scene and the difference music can make in a moment. With a subtle change in tenor his music can change a marching line of penguins from a haunting and solemn trek of nomads to a curious parade of comical follow-the-leader. Wurman’s success is a keystone for the movie and a glorious triumph to match the magnificence of the penguin’s story.
Jordan Robert’s narration, read by Morgan Freeman (you gotta admit that the guy has the perfect narrator’s voice), gives words to the tale, translating for the audience the events of an entire year which are being condensed for us into a neat eighty minute package. This is where some objectivity is lost. For example, a mother penguin huddling over her dead chick is described as experiencing the emotions of unbearable loss. Perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch (who really knows what animals feel), but it’s not unreasonable and it’s all a part of the age-old storytelling ritual of adding poetry to the reality. Here the penguins don’t ‘die’, they ‘disappear into the ice’. I don’t believe this brief dramatic license is anything to be ashamed of in this film's case though, after all this isn’t National Geographic (they’d be too busy yelping about global warming anyway).
There’s something cinematically refreshing about March of the Penguins. Maybe having watched one too many remakes, sequels and Wayan’s Brothers movies this year has jaded me a bit, but this movie about penguins has revitalized me somehow. It’s nice to know that there are good storytellers out there willing to find great subject matter for their tales and use a little creative imagination and artistic talent to produce a movie that everyone can enjoy and love.
March of the Penguins comes in a very simple, very elegant package that in no way preys on the huge marketing possibilities that come with being a sleeper summer hit. There’s no shameless angling here. No, the producers have continued to allow the penguins, the filmmakers and their story to speak for themselves.
I love to watch movies in widescreen format. Certain people in my life call me a snob because, if a rental store only has fullscreen copies left on the rack, I would rather buy the movie in widescreen, watch it, and then sell it back than rent the fullscreen version. For March of the Penguins my outlook is a little different. I wouldn’t just prefer widescreen, I believe it to be crucial. These cinematographers were capturing life as it happened and what they were trying to capture for you is vital, going far beyond the artistic endeavors that Martin Scorsese and Sydney Pollack whine about being destroyed when their projects get clipped. Do yourself a huge favor and watch Penguins in widescreen - yes, even you who complain that you hate those black letterboxes above and below the image. Remember, it’s the fullscreen version where part of image is being removed and stolen away.
The first bonus feature, entitled Of Penguins and Men, is a sort of video diary of cinematographers Laurent Chalet and Jérôme Maison and it’s a splendid documentary in its own right. The story is no longer just about the birds, but about both the birds and the men and how they interact. Among the discoveries that the filmmakers encountered was the sheer innocence and curiosity of the animals who would immediately come to greet the cameramen upon their approach. “So there are still creatures on this earth not afraid of man,” says one, “their innocence delights us.”
The featurette explores the story of the documentarians as well: their life in the cold weather, their experiences being separated from the rest of the human world for a year, and the joys and sorrows they experienced during their time among the Antarctic landscape and its Penguin population. Their descriptions are often poignant, like their observation of “the paradox of Antarctica: splendor and sadness exist side by side. ”It’s not quite the moving narrative that the feature film is, but the story shared is enjoyable in its own right and is the perfect companion to March of the Penguins.
A National Geographic half-hour special on “Critter-cam” is included as well. A group of scientists trek down to the Antarctic, strap a camera on a penguin’s back and use the footage to study the animals’ feeding habits and life under the water. While the footage is fascinating it’s hard to ignore the fact that the entire thing is covered in a fine layer of global-warming bleeding heart whining. Habitats change guys, and all the tragedies in nature aren’t tied to fact that we humans aren’t all riding bicycles to work.
As a bonus Warner Brothers has tossed in a classic Bugs Bunny cartoon that involves the carrot eating wise-cracker trying to help out a poor lost penguin. The theatrical trailer is included as well. It’s a low-key DVD release, the perfect presentation for a low-key film. No doubt it will follow in the footsteps of the theatrical release and become a smash hit this holiday.