Friday, August 19, 2005

March of the Penguins (Jacquet, 2005)

There is a great moment at the beginning of March of the Penguins that is lifted right out of Lawrence of Arabia. We see a seemingly endless, barren, monochromatic landscape. Because the elements are so extreme, it appears as if everything has been washed clean. There is a cleanness and smoothness to the terrain that is strikingly beautiful, even though we know it must be uninhabitable. But wait! What's that? A dark blur. Slowly this dark blur gets larger until we can see that it is moving. And then we begin to see more detail until, of course, the blur is revealed to be one of the admirably stubborn heroes of this film, an emperor penguin.

In order to make a film like March of the Penguins work and be marketable as a feature film, I suppose it is inevitable that a certain degree of anthropomorphizing will need to occur. To that end, the film works as a kind of absurdist commentary on the ridiculous lengths to which a species will go merely to cling to life and ensure that future generations will continue the cycle. The penguins of this film, however, have nary an idle moment to ponder such existential questions. When they are not walking 70 miles from the ocean to the birthing ground, they are huddling in a nasty winter storm or fending off predators from the skies. The sentimental voice-over encourages us to see the penguins' year-long routine as a noble sacrifice fueled by love, but most of all these tasks seem like drudgery. As the camera panned across a breathtaking view of an endless procession of penguins walking single-file, I was reminded of the workers arriving at the factory in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. After the babies are finally born, we are assured that there is a loving familial bond that occurs between parent and child. I'm skeptical, but I hope that it is true at least on some weird penguin level, as pleasures in Antarctica (apart from fish gobblin' and belly slidin') seem to be exceedingly sparse.You can only go down the road of anthropomorphication so far though. We are told that the emperor penguin is monogamous (at least over the course of a mating season for practical reasons), and this leads to some amusing courtship scenes, but how seriously can we take this 'penguin love' when the family members split at the end of the year and are completely unaware of each other after that? ("I guess I've already told you about my condition.") When a threatening bird arrives from the sky and grabs a little penguin chick by the neck, are we allowed to wonder why none of the adults rush to its aid? Fortunately, this is a minor issue and, if the viewer is a good sport, I can think of only one moment where the narration went beyond precious and into false. We are told that a mother penguin 'mourning' over her fallen chick experiences a sadness that is "unbearable." It is a scene that really needs no explanation and the forced attempt to label it with a human emotion gets in the way and baits the cynical part of us when we most want to access the innocent part.

As for the narration of Morgan Freeman, it is impeccably articulated to be sure, but I wonder if he brings too much baggage from other films for adult viewers. His omniscient musings on films like The Shawshank Redemption, Million Dollar Baby and War of the Worlds are becoming, through no fault of his own, cliched. It's not necessarily a bad choice on the part of the filmmakers, but it does seem like an unimaginative one. Freeman's soothing drone also doesn't do much to liven up the penguins' repetitive routine, which, between marvellous sights, does tend to get tedious on occasion. I wonder what a livelier, perhaps comic narrator (Ellen Degeneres?) might have brought to the picture. In the end, however, I am merely a dork sitting in his cushy chair at the computer in my air-conditioned house nitpicking about a film made by people that dared to brave the brutal conditions of Antarctica for months in order to make a small, loving tribute to one of the world's most peculiar and ingratiating creatures. The greatest value of March of the Penguins is that it takes us someplace that almost none of the Earth's human inhabitants will ever dare to go, and for that reason, it is well worth watching.



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