Friday, August 20, 2010

March of the Penguins (2005)

La marche de l'empereur, France, 80 minutes, documentary
Director: Luc Jacquet
Writers: Jordan Roberts, Luc Jacquet, Michael Fessler
Photography: Laurent Chalet, Jerome Maison
Music; Alex Wurman
Narrator (English version): Morgan Freeman

I used to feel like maybe I needed to be a little bit apologetic about liking this as much as I do. Maybe that's the G rating, its ubiquity in strictly child-safe outlets such as kids sections in bookstores and libraries, not to mention lube-oil-filter waiting rooms, or maybe because it seems like it would just have to be only one more lovely entry in an endless series of rote documentaries on funny aminals. To some extent those things are true. The penguins are adorable, up and down and across the breadth of this, waddling about in their Chilly Willy tuxedos and all but urinating ice cubes, followed by spit takes. But above and beyond that, their story is so jaw-drop amazing—no, make that profound. With efficient strokes, this handsome documentary sketches the one true story of how emperor penguins in the Antarctic propagate their species, year in and year out. It involves 70-mile treks across frozen landscapes, spending the season of darkness squatting over an egg, and going without food for months at a stretch. Is it manipulative? You did notice that was certified movie star Morgan Freeman performing the narration chores for the U.S. version, didn't you? So yes, of course it's manipulative. It's meant to move you. Mission accomplished. The photography is beautiful and the music ineffably sweet too. Everything about it is done with just the right touch: the haunting cries of the penguins coupled with the various functions of those cries, gradually revealed, work with the simple, continuing focus on the trudging, waddling, plodding gaits of the creatures to yield them their due dignity and then some. Breathtaking shots of them underwater, by happy contrast, reveal their astonishing grace and genuine status as birds capable of flight And their mating, the arduous rituals between male and female of connection and shared responsibility and survival, raise the stakes sky high. A shot will come that shows an egg suddenly, accidentally exposed, frozen in seconds, the life of it perished, and it is an almost unbearable thing to contemplate. In short, this movie has everything you could ask for in 80 minutes of entertainment, fact-based or otherwise: quest, conflict, stakes, resolution, redemption, laughs, and overweening pathos. Humans not needed in this case, thanks very much. What's more, probably it could not have been made even 20 years ago, so don't miss the DVD extras documenting the technology and the work, on the part of humans, that made it all possible in such harsh extremes: below zero temperatures, high winds, constant darkness, etc.

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