Onward, emperors

March of the Penguins

Cute yet dignified: emperors on the march.

Cute yet dignified: emperors on the march.

Rated 4.0

Moviegoers of a certain age fondly remember the thrill that shot through family audiences whenever one of Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventure films (The Vanishing Prairie, The Living Desert, On Seal Island, Bear Country, etc.) came on the screen. The dazzling logo of a violet globe and gold compass, the animated brush painting a landscape that dissolved into the real thing, and the friendly voice of narrator Winston Hibler sounding like a favorite uncle who knew everything. They all told us we were about to see and hear things we never knew about, creatures we’d probably never thought about. There’s a little of that thrill—quite a lot, actually—in the new French documentary March of the Penguins, from director Luc Jacquet.

The movie chronicles the life cycle of Antarctica’s emperor penguins: their courtship, mating and nurturing rituals in a windswept snowscape where the average temperature is 58 degrees below zero. Jacquet’s original version, La Marche de l’empereur (The Emperor’s Journey), played the Sundance Film Festival in January. In that edition, actors Charles Berling, Romane Bohringer and Jules Sitruk provided the voices of a penguin couple and their eventual offspring.

For this U.S. release, according to reports, the film has been trimmed by five minutes, and the actors’ voices have been replaced with a more conventional narration written by Jordan Roberts and spoken with grandfatherly wisdom by Morgan Freeman (Emilie Simon’s music also was dropped for a new score by Alex Wurman). I never saw the original, but I can’t help thinking the change was probably an improvement; real-life penguins murmuring sweet nothings while they mate may have sounded romantic in French, but in English it’s something not even Disney would have tried to pull off.

Besides, Jacquet’s very visual story hardly needs such ear candy. Each year, thousands of emperor penguins trek across the Antarctic waste to their breeding ground (“the place where each of them was born,” Freeman tells us—a cunning touch of anthropomorphism, glossing over the fact that penguins, like all birds, are hatched, not born). There, the penguins pair off, with the outnumbered males waiting patiently while their prospective brides squabble over them.

After the eggs are laid, the males stay behind and tend them. The females take off for the sea to find food, and those that don’t die on the way or fall victim to sea predators return months later fat and ready to feed their chicks—while the males in turn set out on the same waddling race against starvation. When the boys come back, everybody hangs around, the chicks grow strong enough to brave the fierce elements on their own, and then the whole lot trudges once more to the sea, where they spend the rest of the year doing whatever penguins do until it’s time to start the whole process over again.

It really is an amazing example of adaptation to a harsh environment, and Jacquet and his crew (Laurent Chalet and Jérôme Maison are the credited cinematographers, but obviously there were many more—camera operators, sound recordists, editors and others) spent 13 months getting it all on film. They managed many great shots of the terrible Antarctic beauty and, by some combination of tact and technology, were able to get amazingly up-close-and-personal with their subjects. The birds, with their irresistible mixture of cuteness and dignity (it’s not for nothing that they’re called emperors), seem to have borne the interlopers with aplomb. Every now and then, though, we get an endearing shot of a penguin staring at the camera as if to say, “What the hell are you doing here?”

The original, primal charge of movies was their ability to take audiences somewhere they’d never been and show them things they’d never have seen on their own. March of the Penguins recaptures some of that long-ago wonder; surely, if there’s one place on Earth in which most of us know we’ll never set foot, it’s Antarctica, to see how the penguins live. Now, thanks to Jacquet and his hardy band, we don’t have to.