Should it really be such a surprise to see a nature documentary like “March of the Penguins” nestled in each week’s box office reports among this summer’s blockbuster fantasy/sci-fi hits? It may have more in common with them than you think.
After all, Antarctica is such an unbelievably cold and unforgiving territory that it almost seems like another planet. The Southern Lights that dance across the sky in all shapes and colors are like nothing else on Earth (except maybe the Northern Lights), and the odd-looking emperor penguins that populate this beautifully shot tale of courage could certainly pass for space aliens.
|Chet realizes God has a sick sense of humor.|
But, beyond its striking landscapes and amazing photography, what makes “The March of the Penguins” a good movie is its depiction of the main characters. Believe it or not, the film has a story. Like any good book or play, it has three acts. It also features characters who are sympathetic and believable, and who are also capable of achieving remarkable feats.
Every year, in a determined effort to preserve the species, schools of penguins leave the food-filled ocean for a desolate walk under the harshest conditions of winter to mate and protect their young. Director Luc Jacquet and his obviously insane camera crew followed one characteristic emperor penguin colony for twelve months as they trekked across a seventy-mile path to and from the water, enduring freezing winds of over 100 m.p.h.
Over the span of one year, the penguins do what every generation has done before them. Because of the conditions in their habitat, they have no choice. Jacquet has wisely chosen to depict this cycle as one story, including straightforward but illuminating narration to contextualize the penguins’ actions. In the U.S. version, this comes from the ever-authoritative voice of Morgan Freeman. (After “Million Dollar Baby” and “War of the Worlds,” this is the third movie in eight months to feature Freeman’s durable, omniscient drawl.)
Like with any documentary, one may wonder whether shots taken during one event have been edited in with those from another in order to support a more cohesive story. Certainly with the enormous amount of footage shot for “The March of the Penguins,” this must be the case. But like any good documentary, the intention is to serve the story and get across a point of view, so this gripe is essentially beyond the point. Jacquet knew what his lead characters would do, so he has made sure that there are plenty of photogenic moments capturing this strange and daring ritual.
If, like I did, you find yourself grappling with the issue of whether or not it is worth it to cough up seven bucks to see what is essentially a widescreen Discovery channel program, you should know this. “The March of the Penguins” contains not only all the stunning cinematography you would expect, but also more character and heart than half the movies you will see this summer.