2005. Dir. Luc Jacquet.
March of the Penguins documents a year in the life of a flock of emperor penguins that struggles to mate, breed, and survive in the fierce, icy winds of Antarctica. This is a continent that, no matter what you place upon it, looks like a gorgeous abstract painting. The white of the ice and snow is so stark that it looks like a freshly gesso-ed canvas, with streaks of pale blue light, indigo water, and cold sunlight smeared across it. The penguins, tiny black ink drops, are swallowed up by this mesmerizing, dangerous landscape. The whipping ice and wind threatens to submerge the penguins entirely, even when they’re huddled into a great black mass. It’s a wonder they survive the winters here at all, much less that they somehow manage to thrive.
Jacquet’s camera is still, capturing both the grand vistas and the intimate joys and heartbreaks of the flock’s breeding. But it’s somehow a remote vision. When an exposed egg cracks, the ice crystals that form around it instantly let us know that the life inside is doomed. But this doom doesn’t resonate. When we see a baby penguin frozen solid, dead from hunger, it’s not quite as powerful as the filmmakers intend it to be. We often feel like we’ve entered the flock’s tight clusters, but the uniformity of the penguins is such that, as cute as they are, we’re mostly detached from them. We’re amazed by their ability to survive, but not moved. When the female penguins dive underwater for fish, eating for the first time in two months, their cuts through the nearly black sea are beautiful, but somehow not gripping. We aren’t allowed to follow any one family long enough to become attached to them.
Maybe that’s for the best. A lot of them are felled—by wind, by starvation, by leopard seals and predator birds—but March of the Penguins doesn’t give us a sense of the attrition. Of the two thousand penguins who are bred each year, it’s unclear how many of them survive their first year. While Morgan Freeman—the gentle, humane narrator—mentions that there are more females than males, the movie doesn’t let us know what the ratio is, and what that bodes for emperor penguins in the future. It’s the lack of details like this that makes the documentary more detached than it could be.
The movie tries to force empathy through repetitive motion. I lost count of how many times we see a penguin fall clumsily on her face, or of the gorgeous close-ups of just hatched chicks. We get it—they’re cute. The sweeping landscapes are at first haunting—and Antarctica at night is still chilling, with those southern lights flapping through the sky—but then become mundane. Jacquet gets better results from Freeman, who really should just narrate every documentary that exists. He provides a quiet wit, and an emotional connection between penguins and humans, that the photography grasps for, but doesn’t quite reach. Alex Wurman’s score, driven by piano and flute, is jazzy and whimsical without being sappy. It’s as comic and sincere as the penguins themselves.
March of the Penguins’s use of natural light, rhythmic flocks, and oceans of blue make it beautiful, and worth seeing. Still, it’s a pretty, detached 80-minute feature that could have been—and should have been—an utterly entrancing 60-minute TV special.