March of the Penguins

The first thing that hits you about March of the Penguins is how unimaginably beautiful a film it is. It starts with the landscapes – waters aquamarine and turquoise, ice caps neon white – breathtaking vistas of wind-swept barrenness. And in the midst of all this, the penguins – shot with infinite delicacy and trembling closeness, so that you can sense the very sleekness of their flesh, see the glittering reflection of their eye, admire the vividness of their colour, of their presence. Luc Jacquet’s camera follows the penguins everywhere: through sun and darkness, through wind and snow, on land and under water (the underwater shots are particularly beautiful – like watching an exquisite ballet). Watching the film, it is easy to forget that these are wild creatures – not human actors or trained stunt animals or (indeed) computer images – so perfect is the footage. I’m not a big fan of wildlife photography in general, but the footage that goes into the March of the Penguins has to be seen to be believed.

The second thing that hits you about the March of the Penguins is how it’s an unabashed and tedious exercise in the most frightful sentimentality and blatant anthropomorphism. Just because the penguins look vaguely human waddling about on their claws is no reason to attribute a whole range of human emotions, values and ideas to them. I mean, look, they’re birds, for god’s sake – they don’t reason and make decisions, they do what they do based on instinct – to measure their actions against the standards of human society, even to ascribe to them anything resembling rational choice is a gross trivialisation unworthy of intelligent cinema [1]. In spending all its time projecting human behaviour on to the penguins, the movie does them a grave disservice, by denying them their essential animal identity, and trying to make us all join in the pretense that they’re something more than functioning organisms designed to survive and procreate. If there is one value that does shine through in the movie, it’s the incredible resilience of Life itself – the way it survives in the harshest of all environments, using the bodies it inhabits as brutally as it needs to to survive. Everything else is just the overheated imagination of studio executives searching for the next Bambi. The entire narration of this film sounds like it was put together by someone whose sole objective was to revel in the kind of soppiness that makes people go “Awwww! So sweet!”.

I might as well say it – March of the Penguins is a movie for little children. It consistently either skips over the brutal facts of life (there are no shots of the penguins mating, for instance; and no discussion of what happens to penguins who die of the cold – do other penguins eat them? You’d think they would, given that they’re all starving, but the movie doesn’t tell us) or mentions them grudgingly, and then quickly moves on to something more positive. The result is eerily Disney-esque. For all the care, patience and skill that went into the making of this film, they might as well just have done it in animation.

You could argue, of course, that there’s nothing wrong with combining a wildlife documentary with a family potboiler – and certainly the movie does a good job of this. The trouble is that weepy family movies are precisely the kind of films that bore me and that I avoid, so personally I was annoyed that some perfectly good footage was being used in that way. More importantly though, I feel the narration is too obtrusive, too heavy-handed. Subtlety is not a strength of this film, the general idea seems to be to spell everything out in as much detail as possible, lest the viewer miss the slightest nuance of similarity between penguin and human. Had we been left to draw our own parallels, this may have been a far more touching film (remember Born Free?). As it is the entire film seems excessively stage managed, and all the really moving sequences have been narrated within an inch of their life. What makes this particularly irritating is that the footage is actually extraordinarily eloquent, and could easily speak for itself, without Morgan Freeman’s able assistance.

Bottomline: March of the Penguins could have been one of the most incredible and touching wildlife documentaries ever made if it had just been allowed the space to breathe. As it is, it’s a combination of spectacular camerawork and soppy writing. If you’re the kind of person who loves babies and teddy bears and enjoys watching Full House, you’ll probably love it. Otherwise just focus on the visuals and enjoy the film for the visual spectacle it is. And never mind the propaganda.

[1] In many ways Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man is the perfect antidote to this movie – Herzog explicitly makes the point that the animals are simply animals, and one cannot ascribe human emotions to them. I wish he’d told the makers of this fil that.