If you didn't have a true sense of what a cold, harsh and desolate continent Antarctica is before, you'll certainly have a vivid sense of it after seeing March of the Penguins, a beautifully shot wildlife documentary by French film maker Luc Jacquet.
In the original, French version of the film, voice actors were hired to provide mock voice-over characters for the penguins. Warner Independent Pictures wisely stuck with one voice-over narration, and the choice of Morgan Freeman as the narrator for the American release was inspired. Freeman's is a voice you can trust.
The cinematography by Laurent Chalet and Jerome Maison is nothing short of amazing. Who knew endless shots of little more than blue and white, barren landscapes could be so beautiful?
This is how the film begins: aerial shots of ice bergs floating in the ice-cold waters of the Antarctic. Morgan Freeman's familiar voice gives us a very brief synopsis of the ancient history of the continent, from the time when its lands were tropical, up to today, when its only permanent land animals remaining are penguins.
When people see this film, they like to say, "You think your life is hard? Try being a penguin!" And it's an apt comparison, as the lives of these flightless aquatic birds are as filled with tension and danger as they are fascinating. We are witness to a year in the life of these animals, beginning with an inland migration of over seventy miles (all walking) to ice thick enough not to break apart once summer comes; continuing with courtship and mating rituals; the transfer of the egg from the female to the male while the females go back all that way to get food, which they then bring back to the newly hatched chicks. But do the females have food for the males who have starved themselves for three or four months? Oh, no: the males then have to travel all that way back to the water for food, half their body weight gone from systematic starvation. In every case, dangers abound -- from the predatory sea lions and predatory birds, to the astoundingly harsh winter storms.
Every stage of this process is brutal indeed, and Jacquet captures it marvelously. An audience full of people from an eclectic array of backgrounds becomes quite emotionally involved in these animals, rooting with all their hearts for their survival.
Every once in a while the film is very much like Winged Migration, another beautiful documentary with stunning footage of birds -- but which strike a single note for such a sustained period of time, with its gorgeous scenery and soothing music, it can become somewhat of a challenge at times to stay awake, in spite of the scenic beauty. It is for this reason that perhaps, for some people, it may be better to watch in the comparative lightness of a home living room after its DVD release.
Still, there is plenty of drama in the lives of these animals, and once the amazing aerial shots of penguin populations are traded in for more intimate detail, the story is at times genuinely gripping. This is no small feat for a film that with a patently uncomplicated subject matter: these are the animals; these are the necessities for their survival; this is how they manage to accomplish it. There is very little color on the screen -- black, white, blue, and shades of gray -- but virtually every frame is a passable work of art.
Jacquet does not shy away from the impact of harsh realities on these populations, either. Every stage of the annual cycle claims the lives of grown and/or young penguins, and an example of each case is shown on camera. What's more, we get to see how it impacts the surviving members of the penguin nuclear family, and how genuinely traumatic the loss can be. On the other hand, we also get to see the joys and the affections shared by these animals, and the tenderness evident in the courtship rituals are as touching as any love scene ever filmed.
This is a nature documentary not to be missed, and it makes virtually anything you might find on the Discovery Channel look like the work of amateurs.
Opens July 1 at the Egyptian.