How do you prefer your documentary footage of wildlife courtship, mating, and child-rearing habits? Unsweetened or sweetened? March of the Penguins makes a compelling case for celebrating the glory of all living things, with special emphasis upon the subdivision known as emperor penguins who prevail, against all climatic challenges, in the ice deserts of Antarctica — as well as upon the intrepid human filmmakers who tail them.
Luc Jacquet’s exquisitely shot eye-of-God study of a year in the lives of these distinctive birds is a nature film built with a feel for the epic and a love of operatic narrative. Like the best (and canniest) examples of the genre, March inspires awe for the animals under consideration, as well as for the moviemaking itself, with no small percentage invested in eliciting a How’d they get that? admiration on the part of uplifted viewers. How did Jacquet and his team capture the amazing moment when a female passes her fertilized egg to her male mate for months of incubation while she makes her way back to the sea, 70 miles away, to refuel with food? What a world!
But there is also a case to be made — and this is where I cast my vote — for busting Jacquet’s avian epic on multiple counts of anthropomorphic hooey. Acquired, understandably, on a wager that it could become the next Winged Migration, the docu has at least been relieved of its original Teletubby-style French music and Hello Kitty script (much of it involving penguins ”talking” about their hopes and dreams) with which the film was shown at Sundance this past January. In its place is a less-French score by Alex Wurman and a calmer narration written by Jordan Roberts and spoken, with elegant trustworthiness, by Morgan Freeman. But the movie still pins its appeal on the nobility of penguin ”love.” The courting couples no longer whisper foreplay poetry to each other — I remember wondering whether they’d indulge in a postcoital smoke when I saw the original — and the baby chicks no longer sing a ditty along the lines of ”How lucky to be a baby chick!” Yet the refurbished March of the Penguins continues to indulge in the whole ”Penguins are heroes, too” worldview, in which we are encouraged to look at the birds not as Aptenodytes forsteri but as cute little guys who waddle around in penguin suits, doing amazing things out of the goodness of their hearts. As if the creatures weren’t camera-worthy enough just being creatures who do things their way with a constancy profound enough to inspire theologians. Here’s the thing: Extreme as their living conditions are and as arduous as their reproductive routines may be, emperor penguins are not ”brave” or ”resolute” or moved by romance and commitment. They are birds, miraculously designed, as all living things bright and beautiful are, to reproduce. And that alone makes one hell of a story.