March of the Penguins (2005)
Luc Jacquet brings us to a place on earth that most of us will never experience, a place totally foreign to anyone living under a roof. Originally released in France as Marche de l'empereur, La (The Emperor's Journey) with French male and female voice actors anthropomorphizing the penguins (would love to see how this worked), the film was picked up and released to American audiences with a slight overhaul of the structure. Of original elements altered, I assume the most drastic was the cut of the euro-trance soundtrack (which I read was awful) and the original narration (how couldn't this be awful?) with the soothing non-offensive vernacular of Morgan Freeman explaining in simplest terms what exactly these penguins are doing.
The film tells of one clan of the determined Emperor Penguins, first emerging from the water after spending 3 lavish months eating and storing brine in their bellies, and their incredible journey to a desolate ice shelf 70 miles from the water's edge in order to reproduce. The reproduction method is a perfect product of evolution, one born of the most extreme temperate conditions and harshest ways of life. This is not a matter or sex and birth, but one of overcoming the seemingly impossible odds in between. Successfully completing the act of birth becomes a way of life, their entire existence and behavior defined by the battle they wage against the very nature that crafted them. The simple act of balancing a single egg between their feet and under their belly becomes one of the most compelling situations in the film, as a fallen egg in the -60 degree Celsius temperature could almost immediately result in a frozen embryo. Scenes showing huddled masses of male penguins who had been balancing the eggs for months being knocked over by 180km per hour winds become so tragic without even showing the lost eggs.
I would have preferred to have had less of a narrative, and more facts about the penguin population and lifestyle. Too many comments are made on individual situations, such as the excess of narratives and scenes on infant penguins being so adorable (admittedly they are adorable, but I can turn to Lisa Frank when I need a hit of that shit). So much information on the life cycle of these creatures is only introduced, without truly finishing the educative process the audience needs. For example, the narration never tells us how many of these breeding clans there are in Antartica (the wonderful web tells me there are upwards of 40 colonies with a total Emperor Penguin population of 200,000 breeding pairs that we know of, and with more assumed to exist). I had assumed this wasn't the only clan, but I'm sure most viewers didn't.
As watching the film, I couldn't help but be aware that the penguins were not the only living organism living on this ice shelf. The work of the filmmakers is the other survival story on display here, as they co-existed with the creatures for 9+ months without leaving until they were finished. The story he tells us is a reflection of his own, as the pain and affection the penguins show when losing a child, or bracing against the harsh winds is emphasized through the human perspective in which it is told. The tagline for the film is "In the harshest place on Earth, love finds a way ", implying that the penguins themselves feel love. While this romanticism of nature is comforting (and following the immense struggle of reproduction and caring for one baby, telling yourself it is love seems to be an accurate description), I don't believe it to be true. The penguins feel sorrow, pain, affection and strength and they live only to successfully give new life to their child - but this is nature. Making love into the primary theme of the entire film comes off as a marketing strategy, as it ignores all the other wonders of this complex creatures existence. This film is not, however, without feeling. The intimacy we feel with the penguins is a direct result of the love Luc Jacquet has for his subject. This closeness with such an alienated species could never be attained without Jacquet and his crew showing the same dedication towards the penguins that they show towards life and birth.