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May 13, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | May 13, 2006 |

I should have known when the women sat down behind me that I would be in trouble. Not just one or two of them, but a mom, a grandma, and a horde of middle-school aged girls. Going to see March of the Penguins. On a Friday night. In California.

And they didn’t stop saying “awwwwww” the whole time. At one point, one of the young girls even started gasping, “Oh my gawd that’s so cute oh my gawd that’s so cute OH MY GAWD THAT’S — ” and then passed out in catatonic bliss, presumably to comatose dreams of the latest YM issue, geography homework, and text-messaging guys named Devon. And although I wasn’t nearly as vocal, I have to admit it: Some of these penguins really are cute. Does it make me less of man to admit that? I’m not sure, but I’d say it probably does. But director Luc Jacquet is uncompromising, and some of these scenes practically bludgeon you to death with their cuteness. It simply can’t be helped.

March of the Penguins is about just that: the 70-mile trek made every year by the emperor penguins of Antarctica to mate. Even as documentaries go, this one’s pretty bare-bones: There’s no attempt to follow one or two or a group of penguins, probably because there’s absolutely no way to tell them apart. (I have the utmost respect for species where the male has to mate with someone that looks exactly, and I mean exactly, like him. There’s not enough Corona in the world to make me approach a woman with sideburns like mine.) So we watch them mill about, mate, try not to die, and swim off into the sunset. Roll credits.

It’s a testament to Jacquet’s filmmaking skills that he makes Penguins so riveting for its brief 80 minutes. Some of the shots are almost unbelievable, a single one of them worth the ticket price by itself: hundreds and hundreds of birds, walking single-file in a line a thousand feet long; the swirl of the southern lights as the penguins struggle to survive the weeks of Antarctic darkness; and let’s not forget the slow-mo yet tasteful mating scene, so artful it actually took me a few seconds to figure out what I was seeing. And although Antarctica usually brings to mind empty plains of snow and ice, Jacquet successfully captures the blues and pinks of the sky and the darker blue of the sea’s edge. It may not look like much, but there are actual seasons here.

After marching inland to avoid predators, the penguins mate, and the resulting egg is left with the father as the mother trudges the 70 miles back to the sea to eat. Some of the eggs don’t make it: Although they’re protected under their fathers’ coats, more than a few seconds of exposure to the winter storms will kill the life inside the egg. They hatch, and both father and chick wait for the mothers’ return so they can eat. The fathers at this point have gone without food for four months and have lost up to a third of their body weight protecting their young. When the mothers return, the babies are fed, and the fathers take their own turn to waddle back to the sea to eat. And that’s about it. They take turns shuffling back and forth for months so they can eat and feed the chicks, and by the time summer returns they swim away, never to see the young penguins again. And in another few years, the young penguins themselves will undertake the march to mate, and the whole thing starts over again.

The most interesting part of the documentary, unfortunately, was the collection of scenes that accompanied the closing credits. We get our first glimpse of the filmmakers, bundled up and hauling their cameras and tripods across the glaciers. But these brief shots are all we get of the metadocumentary behind Penguins. Why penguins? Why now? How hard was it? There aren’t any answers here, although I guess they’ll be on the DVD.

On the whole, Jacquet has produced an enjoyable but altogether bloodless documentary, something you get the feeling the Disney Company would be proud to claim as its own. One penguin who starts the march too late is doomed to die, but the narration says that “he’ll disappear, swallowed by the whiteness around him,” which sounds nice and poetic except that penguins aren’t Jedi masters, and a dead one will probably just fall over and get picked off by scavengers. It’s another weird sign of American movie-going culture that we have no problem with Paris Hilton getting disemboweled (this is even enjoyable), but animals should somehow exist in a world without pain. In one scene, the penguin chicks are walking around in a group when a predatory bird enters the sky, lands, and starts trying to snatch them up. The girls behind me audibly responded, “Don’t kill the cute birds! DON’T KILL THE CUTE BIRDS!” I wanted to point out to them that, yes, some penguins get eaten by predators, but humans are kind of screwing up the planet for everybody, not to mention the fact that animals in the wild have to eat other animals in the wild. That’s how they, you know, survive.

March of the Penguins is certainly enjoyable, but then again, there’s only so much you can do with penguins and snow. Film students could probably have made the same film, albeit with a suicide and references to love’s futility, so while I applaud Jacquet for providing an entertaining night at the movies, I have to ask: Couldn’t I have just stayed home and watched PBS?

Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Growing Bald.
March of the Penguins / Daniel Carlson

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