Warner Bros. // 2005 // 80 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // November 29th, 2005
"In this land where no other creature ventures, the emperor continues on to his romantic rendezvous." -- Director Luc Jacquet
"Antarctica used to be a tropical place, densely forested and teeming with life," narrator Morgan Freeman tells us at the outset of March of The Penguins. "Legend has it that one tribe stayed behind. Perhaps they thought the change in weather was just temporary, or they were stubborn."
Thus begins a nature tale that begins, appropriately enough, in March, as the emperor penguins emerge from the icy water to begin their annual march to find a mate. The filmmakers, led by director Luc Jacquet, follow the penguins for nine months through to the end, which finds the penguin chicks plunging into the water for the first time.
First-time filmmaker Jacquet devoted a year of his life to following this epic story, drawn by the fact that humans haven't gotten close to the emperor penguin before. The result is impressive, even more so when you learn from the film's official site that he hadn't held a camera in his life before this. He edited down 120 hours of images, aiming for a narrative that shows the cycle of life in the farthest land down under.
Obviously, what you see in the resulting 80 minutes is penguins, and lots of them -- penguin closeups, penguin long shots, penguin overhead shots, penguins diving into the water, penguins getting out of the water, penguins grabbing a towel and building a warm fire... (Just kidding about that last one.)
That may not sound interesting, but if you have a decent attention span and give it a chance, it turns out to be a pretty interesting 80 minutes of penguins. When you see the penguins flopping on their bellies as they cross the harsh icy landscape, you have to give them credit. Would you make a journey like this every year? I found the scene where the eggs begin to hatch and the baby penguins emerge, peering out from under their fathers' feet, dramatic, showing the triumph of life in a harsh climate. It was especially rewarding to see these newborns take their first steps after seeing the surprisingly tense scene in which the mother penguins pass the eggs to the fathers, with one slip meaning frozen death for the chick inside. I also was touched by the scene in which the sun sets over one straggling penguin separated from the flock, with no chance of escaping a solitary death. I almost wished that Jacquet could, just once, put his camera down and rescue the poor bird.
Morgan Freeman's narration is elegant and poetic, supplying the facts behind the penguins' struggle for survival and renewal. How, for example, do penguins find their mates when they return from a food run? Since they look alike, even to each other, they do it by voice. I wasn't too keen on the script's euphemisms, like "will simply fade away" for penguin demises, though; dead penguins are shown briefly on camera, so the wording wouldn't necessarily shield youngsters from the harsh realities of penguin life. IMDb notes that the French and Japanese versions featured actors portraying the voices of the penguins; using a single narrator seems more natural and less obtrusive.
The transfer is usually crisp and clear, although a couple of segments, such as the Southern Lights sequence, have grain that seems to have come from the original film. The sound is excellent, with both ambient penguin sounds and a lush musical score that, combined with the panoramic views of tiny penguins marching with determination across the Antarctic landscape, brings moments of pure beauty to the screen. You might even get a tinge of regret if you weren't one of the many people who saw this one on the big screen, helping the $8,000,000 picture to a $77,000,000 U.S. box office take.
There's no commentary track, but the director's take on his subject can be found in the featurette Of Penguins and Men, which runs around 53 minutes and is more interesting than typical commentary tracks. It shows the conditions under which Jacquet and his crew worked, battling wind and snow as they set up shots. There's more detail about penguin life; he notes, for example, that a quarter of the eggs didn't hatch. National Geographic's Crittercam: Emperor Penguins heads to the Penguin Ranch, an Antarctic research station where scientists watch penguins to see how they feed. The heavy crittercam is strapped to the back of a little penguin named Rodney (after comedian Rodney Dangerfield). Rodney doesn't mess around with lighting, but otherwise brings back some very good footage. Crittercam has an environmental angle, as it shows the effects of global climate change on Antarctic ice formations. Rounding out the package, Bugs Bunny makes the mistake of agreeing to take a tearful penguin home in "8 Ball Bunny," notable mainly for a cartoon cameo by Humphrey Bogart.
Interestingly enough, even the trailers preceding the movie are well-matched to the film, featuring an upcoming penguin cartoon, Happy Feet, The Polar Express, National Geographic's Animal Holiday, and Duma, about raising an orphaned cheetah.
Not guilty. Brrrr! After watching this one, I'm headed off to build a warm fire myself.
Review content copyright © 2005 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Of Penguins and Men
* National Geographic's Crittercam: Emperor Penguins
* "8 Ball Bunny" Looney Tunes Cartoon
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site