Judge Aaron Bossig makes a wish for wings that work.
The Untold Story of South Africa's Blackfoot Penguins.
Hot on the heels of the popular March of
the Penguins, Koch Vision releases this little gem.
Not just dry footage of penguins, Penguins Under Siege attempts to tell an arctic coming-of-age story. The protagonist is Lucy, a freshly hatched South African penguin chick. The movie builds a good narrative, tracking Lucy's personal trials into adulthood, but it tends to get sidetracked a lot with less interesting material. We get to see Lucy's competition for scraps of food, molting her juvenile feathers into a fine plumage, and even her first foray into the sea. Yet later, the story comes to a screeching halt when the narrative jumps to a batch of baby seal pups. The focus shifts to them for so long that the audience almost forgets that they're watching a penguin movie.
No matter how good the writing is, the "story" for an animal documentary is usually not interesting enough to carry the movie alone. Where a film such as this truly shines is in the photography. Does the camera take the audience into places they've never been? Can the photography get them closer to the animals than they'd ever be in real life? Does the composition show a creature's natural habitat with brilliant detail? In almost every way, March of the Penguins does succeed on that count. The underwater scenes are spectacular, showing these otherwise flightless birds "flying" under water. Close-up shots of the beach put us shoulder-to-shoulder with penguins, bringing us into their world and letting us see how their families function. There are a few shortcomings, as I'll explain in a minute, but for someone interested in these amazing creatures, Penguins Under Siege does deliver what you're looking for. It's a portrait of South Africa's Blackfoot Penguins in all their majesty.
As I alluded to before, there are some key areas in which the video for Penguins Under Siege leaves something to be desired. In all the research and fact-checking I've done, critics have applauded the high-definition widescreen video on this DVD. And it's true, the video is quite nice, and it was clearly shot in 16:9. However, I discovered what could be a very serious flaw in the disc, though I hesitate to report it as no one else seemed to find it. The video is certainly widescreen in nature, but the DVD is authored in 4:3. All my equipment (I tried it on two computers and several DVD players) sees this as a 4:3 disc. It appears full-frame with no letterboxing effect at all. It's not pan-and-scan, however, because you can see the skinny-looking distortion that indicates an anamorphic transfer. Using my laptop, I manually corrected the frame, and indeed, the video does look its best when forced into a 16:9 frame. The distortion is undone and the picture looks natural. No matter how good the photography may be, it doesn't mean much if the DVD distorts the picture upon playback.
Unfortunately, this means that people watching Penguins Under Siege on computers will have to play with the settings to get a proper picture, and those watching it on widescreen TVs will have to use a 4:3 "Stretch" mode to get a proper image. Owners of 4:3 TVs are simply out of luck, unless your set is new enough to have a vertical compression setting. I really hope I just got a bad disc, and in fact the other copies of this movie are formatted correctly. I find it hard to believe a release this popular would be botched so badly, and I find it impossible to believe that no one else on the internet caught this issue. However, the evidence speaks for itself. Also, the video itself is a tad on the soft side. Kind of a let-down for a film promising "High Definition" penguin antics.
For a story and a nature video, Penguins Under Siege isn't bad. If you play with the video a bit to get the right aspect ratio, it's a fun watch. It's worth a rental for casual wildlife enthusiasts, possibly even a purchase if it's on sale.
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