Waiting for the Penguins' Call


London odds-makers take bets on everything, from the likelihood of a certain team winning the Super Bowl to, and you know people are just this morbid, when the next terrorist attack will occur and where. But do you think they have what the odds are -- or were, I guess it is now -- for how popular documentaries have become in the United States?

Now, granted, over the past few years some people have had an axe to grind, giving rise to some of the most talked about docs since Hearts and Minds, or at least Hoop Dreams, regardless if they're nothing more than propaganda pieces. But for every baker's dozen of those chip-on-their-shoulder propaganda film there is something like Fog of War, and interesting look into the mind of one of the 20th century's most under-appreciated -- or at least unrecognized (unrecognizable?) -- political forces, Robert McNamara.

But for every, oh, five Fog of War-type documentaries there is something like March of the Penguins.

A National Geographic-produced science film about penguin mating in Antarctica doesn't exactly scream "Sleeper Hit of the Summer!," but it is, primarily because there is more to this intimate little film than what's on its face (plus, drivel like Fantastic Four clogging up the multiplexes doesn't hurt, either).

Narrated by always-engaging Morgan Freeman, a French film and science crew set up camp in the coldest, harshest place on the planet to observe the complex, brutal mating cycle of the Antarctic emperor penguin. It's a life-and-death journey from the glacial coasts to the breeding grounds, and it's one fraught with danger for the flightless birds of the sea.

After living for three months in their natural habitat (the ocean), the penguin shoots itself out of the aquatic depths onto the smooth ice surface above. Once the clan is topside, they make the long, always changing trek to this one specific area in the Antarctic tundra, where, we're told, the ice is the thickest. This makes for an easy place for not just one herd of penguins to meet their mate, but a whole here of herds to do so. In what has to be one of the most remarkable occurrences in the natural world, hundreds of emperor penguins meet, against all odds and reason, at one point to grease the wheels of creation.

While brief, this period of the film is one of the most beautiful. The care and delicate handling of one another the penguins show during the mating process is truly affecting and wondrous. Don't go into the film expecting the nature-porn you find on the Discovery Channel. Instead, bask in the warmth of those tasteful loves scenes because, chances are, you'll never see them again.

Once one penguin meets another, they consummate their relationship -- which lasts only on mating cycle -- and begin the arduous task of caring for an egg in the baron wastes of icy, snowy, triple-digit-below-zero temperature Antarctica. Once the mother lays the egg, she loses nearly a third of her body weight and must trek back to the sea to feed, lest she starve and die. This leaves the father penguin to take care of the egg, then later the young chick.

This is also where the dangers really amplify. Young parents sometimes rush the delicate process of transferring the egg from mother to father, resulting in the egg laying on the icy surface too long, killing the egg and the baby penguin inside. And while this has the potential to be one of those throwaway, "Oh, poor penguin," scenes with no emotional impact, it's exactly the opposite. The extended shot of the slow death of one egg -- from the time it lands on the ice to the bitter cold tearing the egg open and, finally, turning it blue --is horrific, like watching footage of someone being tortured to death. It doesn't help that the following shots of the penguins calling out in pain and anguish are equally gut-wrenching.

Much of the emotional oomph of March of the Penguins lies in scenes like this. It's fair to say that most people have been conditioned to treat the animal kingdom as a marginal, sometimes-a-nuisance thing that they confront either in a zoo or on television but always with a certain amount of detachment. At the least, animals are something to observe and snicker at; at most, a food source. But in this film, something amazing happens -- you actually care for the penguins and their plights and triumphs.

The reason for this is the filmmakers take great care to highlight the complex societal structure that holds this species together. They move in groups, they are jealous, the family unit is comprised of both a male and female rather than simply one or the others, they share in each other's pain, and they look out for one another. One such example of this comes when one penguin loses her child to the cold. Distraught, she tries to steal another penguin's baby and, when she does, numerous others come to the defense of both penguins. Yes, they are preventing one penguin from stealing another's baby, but they are also protecting the mother who lost her child. These animals show an amount of caring that is astounding -- especially when you consider the awful things so many humans do to one another.

Naturally, there are other dangers the penguins face -- predators from the sea and the air are chief among them -- but the film doesn't dwell on them. It presents the swooping gulls and hungry, swimming otters as things that are obstacles to the ultimate goal: keeping the species alive. There is a total survival of the fittest mentality to the film, with the penguins that are too slow or weak dying en route to the breeding grounds or trying to avoid the natural dangers of their world. But that's nature, and thankfully it's not portrayed in an exploitative way.

When March of the Penguins ends, you're left with a wonderful feeling. The beauty of the cinematography, not to mention the penguins themselves, and the emotional power and gravity on display makes for a wholly interesting and substantive film. And in an environment where movie houses everywhere are stuffed fat with cheese-ball CGI flops and should-have-been-direct-to-video epics, a film like this is an oasis and a much welcomed relief.