Appellate Judge Dave Ryan feeds on krill, squid, and various small fish.
Our reviews of March Of The Penguins (published November 29th, 2005), March Of The Penguins (Blu-Ray) (published April 9th, 2007), and March Of The Penguins / On The Wings Of Penguins (published November 12th, 2009) are also available.
March, you magnificent bastards! March!
It's rare that a documentary takes the Oscar season by storm. Yet that's precisely what the French documentary La Marche de l'Empereur, retitled March of the Penguins for its English edition, did in 2006. Nothing more than the true story of the mating habits of the Emperor penguin—with more than a dash of overly anthropomorphic narrative from Easy Reader himself, Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption)—the beautifully-photographed film struck a chord with American movie audiences. Now, Warner Bros. has released twin high definition versions of March of the Penguins, one for each flavor of HD. Will this HD DVD version of the film stand up to the harsh Antarctic winter? Or will its egg freeze solid on the unforgiving ice?
Facts of the Case
Penguins, as any six year old knows, are found only in the southern hemisphere. Emperor penguins, the largest variety of the bird, are among the few penguins who live in Antarctica itself. They also have unusual mating habits. For a variety of reasons, the penguins mate and incubate their eggs during the depths of the Antarctic winter. Because of this, their rookeries are found in only a handful of sheltered ice sheets. Much like salmon, the Emperor penguins return to the specific rookery where they were born to breed, sometimes walking over seventy miles to get to those spots. Additionally, it is the male that "sits" on the egg while it matures to hatching—a rarity in the bird kingdom. It's a long, difficult path for the penguin, one that many do not survive. Yet life goes on for the funny-looking birds, because nature always finds a way.
March of the Penguins is, above all else, a beautifully photographed work. That it was photographed under unbelievably extreme conditions is further testament to the skills of director Luc Jacquet and cinematographers Laurent Chalet and Jérôme Maison. The vistas are gorgeous; the animal photography is impeccable; and the overall impact of the film is dramatic. It is a film that is not content to merely tell a story with pictures. It wants to achieve beauty; it wants to be a work of art. March of the Penguins achieves this goal in spades. For that achievement alone, it is worthy of recognition and acclaim. (Although it's certainly not unique in seeking to elevate the documentary form to art, mind you—it's just the best example of it I've seen in recent years.)
So March would seem to be a perfect candidate for high definition treatment, right? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Not because this is a flawed transfer of the film; in fact, it is a high quality transfer with few visible quirks. Instead, the problem is the film's quality. March of the Penguins is so well-photographed that it absolutely begs for digital video treatment. But March was filmed on good old analog acetate. Plus, it was filmed in extreme conditions (intense cold, low light) that calls for fairly specialized hardy film stock. If you've ever done serious photography, you know that film like that tends to be less fine in its definition. The net result is that the picture is too good for its own film. High definition brings out every nugget of grain in the picture—and the filmed images, especially those taken in the depths of the long Antarctic night, are often noticeably grainy. As good as the film cinematography is, you're still left imagining, in your mind's eye, the same images at HD's maximum quality level. This, unfortunately, is not the film to show off your expensive high def equipment with. It comes off as the visual equivalent of a very, very, very good standard definition DVD, not as a quantum leap in picture quality.
Still, if you're interested in this film but haven't yet purchased/rented it on DVD, there's no reason not to buy or rent one of the high definition versions (other than price, of course). The extras are consistent among the three versions; each edition contains the 53-minute Of Penguins and Men featurette, which is really a separate documentary unto itself; a segment on Emperor penguins from the National Geographic Channel's Crittercam show; and a short Bugs Bunny cartoon. The picture quality is better than the standard definition edition. And it's a good, enjoyable film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
…I think many people have supported/lauded/talked-up/loved March of the Penguins for all the wrong reasons. Part of this is the fault of the film itself; part of it isn't.
The film's problem—and I think this isn't unique to the English version, but is common among all the various language releases—is that it over-anthropomorphizes its subjects. Freeman's narration and some of the editing choices made in the film both hammer home the "hey, that's just like what people do!" aspect of some of the penguins' behavior: the males and females form a couple that raises a single chick; the penguin couples look longingly into each other's eyes as they perform their singing courtship ritual; baby penguins play with each other like toddlers at a preschool. That's all well and good—but penguins aren't people. Penguins form monogamous couples for breeding purposes because the eggs will freeze within seconds if exposed to the winter Antarctic air, meaning they have to be held within a special flap of the adult male penguin's skin until they hatch. Which means the male has to stay put during this time, which means someone has to go get food to feed the chick when it hatches. And when the female comes back with the food, she has to take over the skin-flap-protection duties from the male, so that the male—who has now gone without food for nearly 3 months—can return to the sea and eat, then return so the female can go eat, and so on. The best way to do this is to have a male-female team, so that's what's evolved. The penguins DO NOT do this because they deeply, truly love each other and want to raise their little youngin' up right. March of the Penguins doesn't actively promote that view of penguin behavior—but it doesn't exactly dispel it, either.
The thing is…there's absolutely no need to draw penguin-human parallels to make the story of the penguins interesting. The Emperor penguin's life cycle is fascinating; their survival in the face of nature's arctic wrath is compelling. Yes, they look funny and act kind of like people. But why not explain why they act that way? The film does a good job of showing how their apparent clumsiness and awkwardness is only a terrestrial phenomenon: they may waddle around like old people on land, but in the water they're little rockets. Why not take the same tack with the human-like aspect of the penguins' behavior, and show the purposes those behaviors serve? A good documentary should explain, illuminate, and educate—it shouldn't muddy the waters further.
In many ways, the Of Penguins and Men featurette is the superior documentary here. It has an equally compelling narrative—but instead of focusing on the penguins, it focuses on Jacquet and his crew, and the impact being among the penguins for so long had on them. It's a more "traditional" style of documentary than the feature, but it lacks the "penguins are people" angle entirely. The penguins are still cute and funny, but they aren't imbued with human emotions and motivations. It's a more informative and balanced piece than the feature.
I could forgive the film's anthropomorphic bent except for one thing: the film was seized upon by proponents of "intelligent design" to support their so-called "science." This is not the film's fault or the filmmaker's fault—in fact, Jacquet has publicly repudiated this view of his film. But the film's looseness with its anthropomorphism leaves it open to this sort of interpretation. I find it sadly ironic that an otherwise fine documentary inadvertently became a tool of the enemies of science.
One final parental note: while the main feature soft-pedals issues of penguin death, the extra features—especially the Crittercam one—do not.
March of the Penguins is a beautiful nature film that tells its story effectively and interestingly—but it doesn't inform in the way a good documentary should. Penguins aren't little tiny semi-aquatic people, and shouldn't be presented as such. But the overall package is good enough that I can forgive the film that flaw. Just know that you'll probably wind up wishing the picture quality was even better than it already is if you pick up one of these HD versions of the film.
As for penguins themselves—well, penguins rule. That's, like, totally self-evident, okay? Case closed.
Not guilty, for the most part.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Featurette: Of Penguins and Men
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