Unless it contains something violent or disgusting, wildlife documentaries above all other microgenres of real-world-watch-and-learn movies function, on the whole, as cinematic valium. So in order to make an audience understand how ecosystems work, here it’s the cuddly and flightless birds living in Antarctica, filmmakers have to make these animals either epic or relatable. Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins effortlessly manages both. With the warm, glowing and omnipresent narration of Morgan Freeman, Penguins is a chronicle of the life-cycle of Emperor penguins, the larger and more handsome of the adorable birds that one most readily associates with men in tuxedos…and the human comparisons don’t end there.
The mission of Jacquet is clear from the onset: if you don’t already know how incredible these animals are then you are about to. We the audience are transported through breathtaking cinematography to the icy desserts of Earth’s lost continent that is home to the penguins and are privy to the courtship of mates, the birth of eggs, the long and arduous journey to obtains food (where the film gets its title) and then back again for the hatching egg and the family reunion. Like any in depth wildlife documentary the harshness is unavoidable. We watch huddles of male penguins suffer for months without food or watching mothers mourn the chick that lays frozen dead or even watching the females catfight with their paddle-like flippers over hatchlings or mates – but we also get to watch the babies meet the light for the first time or the first encounter between mother, father, and child like characters in a Nicholas Sparks novel. Its as precious as it is beautiful.
At one point Freeman assures the audience that this is a love story, though one would assume that comment is for the people in the audience under the age of twelve. Through all of the amazing footage captured by the intrepid Frenchman would made Penguins you can’t help but noticed there are a lot of moments of the biological imperative that are left out of the cutesy tale (if you have a tolerant sense of humor, watching the Samuel L. Jackson narrated Farce of the Penguins fills in those gaps at the expense of seriousness). Do these penguins feel the romance so indulgently implied in the narration? No – frankly some of the anthropomorphizing is downright ridiculous and often childish – but the basic human obligation to admire and respect the lives and abilities of the creatures of this planet is too often marginalized as some sentimental hippie aesthetic rather than praised as being this profound and awesome thing; if sugar-coating such stories is an effective and affective way to get the uninformed to watch them then the rest should be content to suffer through every variant of the words “adorable” and “fluffy” in the thesaurus.