My mother still laments the day -- many, many moons ago -- when I ruined National Geographic TV shows for her forever. It had nothing to do with the subject matter, but rather the filmmaking technique on display. After all, when caught up in the moment of seeing someone managing to achieve something no one else had done before (topping a mountain peak, finding an ancient tomb, etc.) some people don't seem to realize that the camera operator -- who captures that footage -- already got there first.
There are no such "first" moments in the documentary "March of the Penguins." Yet, that didn't stop me from wondering about the photographers who braved sub one hundred degree below wind chill temperatures some seventy miles from the nearest supply ship and over a number of months on what's arguably the most formidable piece of real estate on Earth, all to capture the reproductive cycle of the emperor penguin.
We thankfully get to find out, but only during the closing credits where we see footage of the hardy souls braving the elements to get the often amazing and sometimes heartbreaking shots (Note: The DVD also includes a nearly hour-long featurette about just such matters). Up until then, it's all penguins and almost nothing but penguins (plus an occasional predator or two) as first-time documentary filmmaker Luc Jacquet follows a large group of them through the long months of their breeding process.
The original French version of the film -- so I've been told -- actually personified some of those penguins, presumably to make the tale more engaging. Thankfully, that artifice has been jettisoned in this version that arrives with the smooth, authoritative voice of actor Morgan Freeman serving as our trustworthy narrator and guide.
He introduces us to the lone surviving "tribe" of the once tropical Antarctica and at that moment, Jacquet begins with a fun visual. Through the shimmer of some presumably atmospheric illusion -- that will remind one of blazing desert temperatures and their wiggly, radiant heat -- we see many far-off figures trudging along, single file, almost like on some ungodly death march.
It will be that for some of the penguins as they brave seemingly unbearable conditions, starvation and predators. Yet, the film -- as stated by Freeman -- is a love story and one of life and the continual process of creating and nourishing it. For any adult human who's complained about raising kids, this film will give them a new appreciation of true parental hardship and sacrifice.
For all the jokes that older generations make about having to walk ten miles through the snow to get to school, the penguins here travel 70 miles and do so barefoot and with a stride that measures in the mere inches rather than feet. You see, they need solid "ground" that won't melt away in the spring thaw and thus endanger their pending and eventually delivered offspring.
Thus, with nowhere to swim and unable to fly, the penguins begin their long trek in that amusing, short-step waddle that identifies their species and makes them look like diminutive and drunken tuxedo wearers. The march of the title, however, only makes up part of their ordeal that also includes picking out a single mate, reproducing and then literally standing around in the frozen tundra waiting for their lone egg to hatch and then trying to keep it and the eventual hatchling from instantly freezing to death.
The footage alternates between amazing, funny and heartbreaking as we watch the time-honed ritual. While it's obvious that separate moments have been edited together to appear as a continuous segment (sorry Mom), that approach thankfully isn't terribly distracting (although the sound effects seem too enhanced in an effort to accentuate the emotion we're supposed to be feeling at the moment, while the score also gets too heavy-handed in its similarly manipulative nature).
Then there's the fact that for a documentary, we don't really learn that much about penguins (such as their life outside this reproductive process, or what little there seems to be of that). Instead, the film focuses solely on the march -- or marches to be more accurate since there are various comings and goings -- and the overall intended goal, and there's enough detail and information regarding the reproductive endeavor that you won't likely feel shortchanged.
Visually astounding, "March of the Penguins" might not be a perfect documentary (due to the aforementioned issues), but it is an amazing piece of filmmaking that comes mighty close and will likely leave you spellbound at what you've just seen.