“March of the Penguins”

Think you've got it bad? This emotionally wrenching documentary about the difficult life of the emperor penguin will put things in perspective. It may even renew your faith in love.

Topics: Movies,

"March of the Penguins"

Luc Jacquet’s luminous, moving documentary “March of the Penguins” is enough to make you hope there’s no such thing as reincarnation: Human beings have it hard enough, but the life of the emperor penguin, one of strife, deprivation and against-all-odds adaptability in one of the most unforgiving corners of the earth, is far rougher.

Emperor penguins, who make their home in Antarctica, may not be able to fly, but they’re fabulous swimmers. In the summer months, they enjoy their ocean habitat fattening up on small fish, squid and crustaceans. But when it’s time for them to breed, being so close to the water won’t do: They need to reach their breeding ground, far inland, a place where the ice is reassuringly solid and where, in winter, few predators will bother them. In March, as winter approaches in Antarctica, throngs of emperor penguins belly-flop onto the ice after their summer of blissful swimming and trek dozens of miles across a heartless frozen landscape (their short legs make them woefully slow walkers), through blizzards and biting winds, to reach the spot where they can mate and, with luck, raise their young. And that’s when the hard work of procreating really begins for the emperor penguin.

There’s more drama, and more heartbreak, in “March of the Penguins” than in most movies that are actually scripted to tug at our feelings. More than once the picture’s narrator, Morgan Freeman, notes that the emperor penguin’s saga of mating and child rearing is a love story, and while that’s an admittedly handy anthropomorphic device, when it comes to understanding why the emperor penguin would go to such great lengths to mate and have babies, the inexplicability of human love may be the only comparison we have.

Of course, in the more rational corners of our brains, we know that like all living creatures, the emperor penguin is driven by an instinctual desire to propagate the species. Even so, rationality is useless in the face of the choked-back cooing sound a penguin mother makes when she realizes her chick has died — she nudges its body with her beak, perhaps not so much out of sorrow as disbelief, as if her faith in its survival had become programmed into her very being. And in a moment not even Douglas Sirk would have attempted to dramatize, she tries to steal another mother’s chick as a replacement: The other moms in the flock intercede, shooing her off — nature’s way of dealing with sociopathic behavior.



Saying too much about what the emperor penguin has to do just to survive the mating and child-rearing process would be a little like giving away too much of the plot of a thriller. But Jacquet captures some key details so artfully it’s hard not to give a few of them away: He shows us how the parents keep their one precious egg warm by balancing it on their feet and tucking it under a pouch of skin. (If the egg should roll away for even a second, the chick inside will freeze to death. In austral winter, inland temperatures can reach as low as -85 degrees Fahrenheit.)

The parents trade off baby-sitting (or egg-sitting) duties: The males stay with the eggs while the females trek back to the ocean for food — they bring some back for the babies in pouchlike compartments in their throats — meaning the dads go without food for two months. They stand around, unable to move too much owing to the precious orbs balanced on their feet — it’s probably something like being an extra on an eternal movie set, only under the most extreme weather conditions. Jacquet’s cameras (his cinematographers are Laurent Chalet and Jerôme Maison) capture the penguin males huddled in a giant swirl against devastating winter storms, protecting the eggs at all costs: The group rotates slowly, so that all the penguins will have a turn at the warmest part of the pinwheel, the very center.

You have to wonder why any living creature would put up with all this. But that’s part of the emperor penguin’s mysterious allure: They seem to be stubborn, sturdy creatures who take pride in triumphing over adversity, like grandparents who brag about having made it through the Depression. Jacquet captures the cold beauty of their landscape in a way that makes us understand why, for better or worse, it represents home to them: The appeal of all that white-sugar ice, glistening in the summer sun, is easy enough to understand. But even the icy blue-grays of the dusky winter have their own mystical pull.

The emperor penguin itself is a natural movie star: Jacquet captures a group of them in long shot during their arduous walk — moving in long lines and clusters, they look like shimmery black jelly-beans against the snow. When the chicks are finally born, we see that they were worth the wait: Fuzzy and winsome, they look just like Steiff toys.

And the adults are beautiful beyond words: Their glossy feathers are so densely packed they resemble fur; the orange markings on their heads are so softly colored they look as if they’ve been airbrushed on. Their elegance goes far beyond the fact that they look as if they’re decked out in evening wear. Each penguin seeks out his or her mate for the season (these couples will stay together, but only for the year), looking for those unnameable qualities, that je ne sais quoi, that even humans seek in a mate. When a “he” has found the right “she,” or vice versa, the two celebrate by gracefully arching their necks; their heads lowered, they nudge each other conspiratorially, and communicate with each other in a language of distinctive clicks.

They could be performing a number from a ’30s musical: You and me and baby makes three. Maybe “March of the Penguins” is a love story, one that recognizes nature as the foundation of even the most refined feelings of human beings: Hard times are coming, but together we’ll see them through. If birds can do it, maybe people can too.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>