My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 94% Certified Fresh
PLOT: In the Antarctic, every March since the beginning of time, the quest begins to find for emperor penguins to find the perfect mate and start a family.
To begin with, “March of the Penguins” is amazing to look at. A team of French documentarians show us images that must have been astoundingly difficult to capture: emperor penguins marching to and from the sea, finding mates, hatching eggs, feeding chicks, and swimming in open water under the Antarctic ice. (You can even see how difficult the process during a credit cookie over the closing credits.) From the perspective of the kid in me who has always loved really good nature programs (“Planet Earth” is the BOMB), it’s amazing stuff. Hearing Morgan Freeman’s stately voice narrating the visuals is icing on the cake.
But…upon further examination, it’s SHAMELESSLY manipulative. The narration and the music score underline key moments in a way that gives me a case of the eye rolls from time to time. For instance, there’s a sequence where a chick gets separated from its mother and winds up freezing to death on the ice (hey, nature ain’t pretty). There’s a shot of its pitiful frozen corpse, and the mother standing over it, pecking at the chick, as if trying to wake it up. So far, this feels natural. But then we’re treated to mournful music, and a FLASHBACK SEQUENCE. Yes, shots of the mother penguin (it could be ANY penguin, but whatever), tending to her chick, intercut with the mother penguin keening over the DEAD chick. Am I supposed to believe that the mother penguin is actually reminiscing about happier times, in memory of her dearly departed child?
Give me a break. They’re PENGUINS, not people, despite what these filmmakers would like us to think. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the entire film was edited this way to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience, rather than just baldly presenting the facts. And it must have worked, because “March of the Penguins” nabbed the Oscar for Best Documentary feature for 2005, beating out the vastly superior “Murderball.” (See my “Murderball” review elsewhere on this site.)
But whatever. The maudlin narration and selective editing are not enough to erase the positives of this film. Take away the emotional baggage, and you’ve got, not just a great visual feast for animal lovers, but also an incredibly informative journey with these impeccably dressed denizens of a frozen wasteland, creatures who tolerate an absurdly difficult environment simply to ensure the survival of the next generation of penguins. It may not be the most romantic goal, but it makes for damn fine cinema.