Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Review: March of the Penguins

Last Friday while I was in New York, I finally saw March of the Penguins with my girlfriend at the Angelika on Houston Street. There is probably not much more that I can add to what has already been said in numerous reviews and blog entries.

In short, the March of the Penguins depicts the breeding cycle of the emperor penguins, who travel from the sea at the edge of Antarctica to their breeding grounds inland. At the height of the summer, the distance is only a few hundred yards; during the depths of the winter, the
distance may be seventy miles. The penguins travel and then find a mate on the breeding grounds. Once an egg is laid, the males incubate while the females return to the sea. When the eggs hatch, the females return to the breeding grounds while the males walk to the sea. This
alternation of feeding and care of the chicks continues until the chicks are ready to survive on their own.

The film was visually stunning. Viewers are presented with the stark landscape of Antarctica in all of its variable aspects. The ice formations can be blue and harsh during the long dark nights of winter. Or it can be pink and red with the magical morning light of early spring, casting a deceptively warm glow on an otherwise bitterly cold continent. We see, too, the violent blizzards that sweep the interior, as the cluster of penguins huddle together for warmth. Long lines of
penguins can be seen making the march to and from the breeding grounds. Some of the most impressive footage comes from the shots of the penguins hunting (and being hunted) underwater.

The emperor penguins are presented in the most endearing light possible. From the very start Morgan Freeman, the narrator, announces that the film is about a love story. Parents and chicks are shown doing cute things like sliding on their bellies. The courtship of males and females, which includes bill-touching and arching of the heads and necks in a heart-shaped
pattern, is given much emphasis. The sight of a chick peering out from under its father's or mother's belly drew many oohs and ahhs from the theater-goers.

At the same time, it is not all fun and games. The filmmakers made sure to include examples of predation - from a leopard seal and from a seabird that I presume is an albatross. (Perhaps someone can identify it for me.) The bitter cold is emphasized repeatedly with the sight of cold
and fractured eggs, frozen chicks, and males who die from cold and starvation during the bitter storms. One mother who lost a chick in a storm attempted to steal one from another mother, only to be beaten back by other penguins.

It appeared that the filmmakers wanted to make the penguins look as human as possible in both love and sorrow. (Some reviewers have quibbled with this, but I am not going to right now.)

This movie and another from a couple years ago, Winged Migration, appear to be the start of a trend towards using the breeding cycles of animals, birds in particular, as characters in dramas about life and the natural world. For as long as I can remember, there have been programs about the lives of animals on television; PBS's Nature is one example. But these two movies represent a jump from television to the movie theater. So far March of the Penguins appears to be a success; last weekend it was tenth at the box office, and Technorati has counted 3,336 blog posts on the movie.

I think this is good on several levels. One is that the possibility that the popularity of such films may drive home for public policy makers the power of the birding community. We number some sixty million strong, and could have important effects on elections and the economy. Politicians would do well to keep this in mind when considering legislation affecting the natural world. The second is that the portrayal of such charismatic animals as the emperor penguins may breed a love or appreciation of nature in people who do not normally consider themselves birders or naturalists. Birds with dramatic breeding cycles such as the emperor penguin make for natural film stars; I imagine others such as the red knot or arctic tern could fit as well. And filmmakers do not need to make an animated movie to use these animals for dramatic purposes because the events are real.