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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 34.95%
Average: 8.74%
Pretty Bad: 7.77%
Total Crap: 10.68%

9 reviews, 49 user ratings

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March of the Penguins
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by Jay Seaver

"Come on, it's penguins. Who doesn't love penguins?"
4 stars

A few weeks ago, a message board I frequent spawned a topic along the lines of "why are people spending money on a nature documentary? Don't they know that they can get this sort of thing for free on cable?" One of the interesting points of view in this discussion was that held by the people who said they would watch it for free on Animal Planet, and they'd spend more money to see a version half as long on an IMAX screen, but couldn't see the point of just seeing it as a regular movie. This saddens me, because it's well worth the ticket price, and all that seems to be keeping people out is genre prejudice.

The source of the film's appeal is so simple that one wonders why there aren't more high-profile nature documentaries - giving people a chance to see something extraordinary in an immersive environment. Sure, IMAX would be more immersive, but those gigantic cameras would be a real pain to haul around Antarctica and might be more likely to spook the birds. And while this type of film is more frequently seen on television than in multiplexes, that's a shame, because nature documentaries are among the types of films that benefit most from being seen on the big screen: You may be seeing the same pictures and hearing the same sounds, but it is a different experience to have the theater be a secondary presence around the edges of the film than to see the film through a portal in one's own living room.

So why is March of the Penguins a kind of sensation while other films of its genre go direct to television or struggle to draw even small crowds to boutique houses? Few nature documentarians imbue their films with the strong narrative that director Luc Jacquet manages here. There is a perilous journey from one location to another, conflict, danger, and resolution. Most films of this ilk focus on life as a repeating cycle, and while part of nature's wonder is that it is a perpetual motion machine, the idea of life being on endless repeat is less comforting at the level of an individual animal or flock than it is for an entire ecosystem. So Jacquet is very careful not to show us an entire life cycle, but instead a single quest to find mates and reproduce. We're given a story with a definite beginning, middle, and end.

It's a simple story. Every year, the emperor penguins journey en masse from the coast of Antarctica, where food is plentiful but where predators also thrive, to a valley seventy miles away. There, they will meet up with other flocks, court, and mate. They will then take turns shielding their egg (and, later, chick) from the cold, and then will take turns going to the sea to feed while the other watches the baby. For a penguin chick to hatch and make its first voyage to the sea is not just another trip around the circle of life, but instead a singular triumph, accomplished through guts, perseverance, and teamwork.

And, of course, it helps immensely that it's being accomplished by penguins. People love penguins; on a recent trip to Montreal's Biodome, I noticed that people sat down to watch the penguins in rapt attention after giving the other environments little more than cursory glances, and I certainly wasn't immune to the phenomenon. They're more person-shaped than most animals, but with their stumpy little legs and unarticulated wings, there's nothing threatening about their anthropomorphism. They're cute when they waddle and when they opt to slide across flat or inclined surfaces on their bellies. Many of their actions are things the audience can relate to on a human level, whether it be falling over on their butts (and quacking at the guy behind them), striking out with a girl, or driving off someone trying to steal a neighbor's egg. And then, at just the point where the audience may start to take the film's subjects for granted, the eggs hatch, and we're introduced to the baby penguins, which are just a whole new level of cute.

Though the narrative is accomplished mainly through skilled editing and underscore, the American release includes narration by Morgan Freeman. The narration is handy for supplying facts that may not be immediately obvious: Just looking at the penguins walking, it's tough to get a sense of their journey's scale, and while we know the conditions in Antarctica are extreme, it's useful to know that it is, in fact, cold enough to split the egg apart if it's away from one of the parents' warm bodies for more than a few seconds. Freeman's voice is gentle and authoritative, and used sparingly enough that the kids (and adults) in the audience can learn more through observation than by being lectured. I gather than in the original, French-language version of the film, the penguins were dubbed with human voices, and I'm glad it didn't play that way here, a decision that strikes me as bizarre, although I'd have to actually see it to decide for sure.

As with many documentaries, of course, there's a question of how much judicious editing has shaped the story. It's less bothersome here than in many, since Jacquet's aim is more to tell a story and just let you look at penguins being penguins than to convince you of something. If the movie were about how human activity is melting the Ross Ice Shelf and making the journey more perilous, it would be a bigger issue. Fortunately, this movie is much more about entertaining its audience than trying to change people's minds on anything.

Unless, of course, they don't already think penguins are awesome. The movie does make an amusing case that they are.

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originally posted: 09/22/05 03:43:15
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2005 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Atlanta Film Festival For more in the 2005 Atlanta Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/16/14 Peter M Great subject turned into sentimental nonsense. Three times over length 3 stars
3/23/10 John Wow! Talk about a grouchy review. For unemotional info, get a textbook, not a film. 5 stars
11/08/09 joel try's to make penguins look like humans 1 stars
5/21/09 Luis Alvarez Really boring. I ended up making fun of of the penguins "sadness." 1 stars
1/13/09 Anonymous. i learned alot about penguins watching this. 4 stars
1/21/08 deborah mclean ditto on what brian said 5 stars
6/19/07 Jessiika I really like it and thought it was great :D Penguins are cute hahaha 4 stars
5/23/07 isha boring more exciting please 1 stars
1/13/07 David Pollastrini they're cuuuuuute! 5 stars
12/06/06 chienne I work in Mental Health. Enough said. 4 stars
8/10/06 Dragon The Artist An overrated mushfest,I dont understand why so many people adore it. 1 stars
7/29/06 David Cohen A brilliant antidote for the Disney "nature loves everyone" mentality 5 stars
7/01/06 Gerry Irons Amazing Filming-but thought it sensationalized penguins deaths-penguins die allot we get it 2 stars
6/12/06 millersxing Jacquet brings the penguins; Freeman brings the gravitas--and that's documentary gold. 4 stars
6/08/06 Peggy Doty INTERESTING 5 stars
6/04/06 michael Not just a kids movie either 4 stars
6/03/06 San Lamar i liked it 5 stars
5/27/06 lasharee davis It was very interresting 5 stars
4/29/06 Sheila Spectacular 5 stars
3/03/06 Tanya Beautiful, yet touching, I enjoyed it. great documentary 5 stars
2/25/06 PAG Overrated. Somewhat interesting, but no more than the average Discovery Channel doc. 3 stars
2/21/06 Anne Gallick I never suspected that the live of a penguin was so miserable. This movie is a cryfest. 3 stars
12/20/05 Martin I liked the penguins. 4 stars
12/11/05 Phil M. Aficionado Fascinating in all respects, and an astounding undertaking to film it. Beautiful too. 5 stars
10/20/05 Agent Sands Your obligated to see this if you're an animal lover like me. 4 stars
10/10/05 Jenny Chen A marverous movie 5 stars
9/09/05 Tiffany Faye Hawthorne ALMOST made me forget that Morgan Freeman twice co-starred with Trashley Dudd! 5 stars
9/09/05 John great story in eth tradition of the old Disney Nature documentaries 4 stars
9/05/05 Daryl Walker This is an adorable and fascinating documentary. 4 stars
8/28/05 jenjenmarie absolutely amazing. a true documentary that anyone can enjoy 5 stars
8/28/05 DM The kind of movie where you keep asking, "How did they get that footage?" 4 stars
8/25/05 Smitty Absolutely beautiful, see it in a theater, not on video, but a real bore-ass of a movie. 2 stars
8/25/05 Tom Benton As far as documentaries go, "March of the Penguins" is wonderful. 5 stars
8/23/05 chris. nothing i didn't know before, but i'm a nerd. i'm glad this gives a large audience a look 5 stars
8/21/05 flipst0oge it was so 1 stars
8/18/05 Ilana Sprongl Wonderful film about that most amaizing creature, the penguin. 5 stars
8/15/05 Mark This was the best nature documentary i have ever seen 5 stars
7/30/05 clinger26 You've got to see this documentary 5 stars
7/26/05 rachel fascinating! fabulous! intriguing! 5 stars
7/24/05 R.W. Welch Penguins outwit world's harshest environment. Nicely filmed and written. 4 stars
7/23/05 ajay wonderful story. everyone, yes EVERYONE should see this. 5 stars
7/23/05 Kristina Williams If only humans were so dedicated....... 5 stars
7/15/05 Jan K. A long way to walk with such short legs! 5 stars
7/14/05 Bill Joyner Outstanding Movie for everyone around the World. 5 stars
7/05/05 Brian Strilesky Eventually, as word travels, nearly everyone will end up seeing this amazing film. 5 stars
7/04/05 Ken Incredible movie. 5 stars
3/24/05 Rebekah Johnson Fabulous film! I loved it! Amazing footage and narration. 5 stars
1/27/05 lex Gidley Loved It!!! If it comes to America, it won't be a hit, but it is very entertaining. 5 stars
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  24-Jun-2005 (G)
  DVD: 29-Nov-2005



[trailer] Trailer

Directed by
  Luc Jacquet

Written by
  Luc Jacquet
  Michel Fessler

  Morgan Freeman

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