March of the Penguins (***)

Posted on August 5th, 2005 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

The March of the Penguins is an astonishing documentary that follows one reproductive cycle in the lives of the Emperor Penguins. As the long Antarctic night falls, the penguins jump out of the ocean and onto the ice, and proceed to walk, waddle, and belly slide to their ancient breeding ground, sometimes covering over 70 miles. Once there, the penguins then find a suitable mate and and proceed to remain monogamous, at least for the current season.
After several weeks their relationship produces, at most, one egg. During the entire gestation period the mother and father both remain in the breeding ground, which means they have nothing to eat the entire time, and the only liquid they get is the snow they eat. Once the egg is produced it is handed from mother to the father (they keep it on their feet with an insulating flap of fat to protect it from the cold). The mother then proceeds to walk/waddle/belly slide the ~70 miles back to open ocean to have her first meal in weeks. Meanwhile the fathers all huddle together cheeck by jowl, belly by belly, heads tucked, eggs protected, against the unrelentingly harsh winter storms, with winds of 100 MPH and temperatures of 30 below. All while having had nothing to eat since leaving the ocean.

The mothers eventually return, the couple spend a little time snuggling, and the fathers immediately had off the ~70 miles to get their first meal in months.

The couples continue this tag team for several rotations until the chicks are born. As the season progresses the weather warms, so the open ocean gets closer and the roundtrips get shorter. Once the chicks are born, the mothers return, the fathers spend a little time exchanging chirps with their offspring (imprinting both with each others distinctive voice), and head off to the ocean one last time. Before they return the mothers will also leave, leaving the maturing chicks behind on their own and dependent on the return of their fathers for sustenance and survival.

The documentary follows the entire cycle, and clearly shows the beauty and the harshness of life in Antarctica for the penguins. Be warned, however, that contrary to the trailers and the marketing of the film, and also contrary to what one might presume about the nature of this nature film (heartwarming chicks! crazy antics on the ice!, etc), this film is an unblinking recorder of both the successes and the failures of the cycle of life. And the failures are heartbreaking, harsh, cruel, and explicit.
If you are an animal lover you may find yourself unable to watch some of the more disturbing scenes. However, unlike the gratuitous violence of a Hollywood film, the psychotic violence of “sport hunters”, or the staged violence of a sporting event, this violence is totally natural and unsullied by outside interference. That makes it slightly less disturbing to watch, but not much.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that in the end, the great circle of life continues as expected. And virtually every aspect of the penguin’s reproductive cycle was new information for me, and it was fascinating, humbling, and awe-inspiring. If you can handle the mercilessness of reality and have an interest in seeing one of nature’s most challenging alternative lifestyles, go and see The March of the Penguins.

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