March of the Penguins
Luc Jacquet has done the impossible.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
Toss that anthropomorphic expectation and embrace your inner animal because documentarian Luc Jacquet has done the impossible: March of the Penguins respects, even adores, these indomitable cuties, not because, as Morgan Freeman says in his voice-over narration, they may be just like us, but rather because they are not like us. Although we may want to see ourselves in them, we end up seeing in this incomparably intimate journey through the entire breeding cycle in Antarctica a unique organism totally devoted to the survival of its family, brooking no selfish activity and no vacation from the harsh climate and relentless demands of nature.
This film's strength is a lack of sentimentality that allows us to focus on the strategies of survival: Thousands of Penguins closely huddle with their backs to the sometimes 100 mile an hour winds; fathers and mothers equally share responsibilities like trudging 70 miles each way to store up food for the babies; fathers protect eggs while mothers make that journey; mates separate after the season from each other and their babies forever. Their lovemaking is dignified and the essence of minimalism. These are just a few of the rituals that characterize an evolutionary process guaranteeing the survival of the species.
Jacquet occasionally courts repetition, anathema to a hyperactive audience, but if the audience gives itself over to the rhythms of penguins breeding to live, it will not be bored. Winged Migration seems strangely detached by comparison, formations mostly seen from afar. Jacquet gets up close and personal (The parents exchanging an egg to be stored under their coats is memorable) to make the audience collaborator rather than voyeur. Additionally, the director includes no scenes of raw predator activity, just a large scavenger scooping up a baby. A documentary should allow the audience of experiencing the good and the bad.
A few years ago I hid in a trench in New Zealand to see Penguins rise out of the sea at the same time each day marching by us to their camps. I was deeply moved by their dignity and calm, punctuated with a resolve to keep their rituals intact for millennia. That unflagging constancy is devoutly to be wished in humanity.
For once, the trailer hype may be accurate: "In the harshest place on earth, love finds a way." Love of species would be more accurate. No matter, you'll love the film.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com.