(La Marche de L'Empereur)

Directed by Luc Jacquet. 2005.

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The story of the emperor penguins of Antarctica has all the elements of classical drama: romance, tragedy, loss, and the struggle for survival against heavy odds. Yes, I know these are just birds but the powerful documentary March of the Penguins, directed by Luc Jacquet, allows us to see a little bit of ourselves reflected in their instinctive rituals. What it takes for a penguin family to survive is little different than what it takes for us: partnership, communication, joint risks, and shared goals. The film, which opened in limited release on 132 screens, was seen on 1500 screens by the first week in August, having grossed $16.7 million. It is that rare film that will entertain all members of the family and even spark an interest in science. 

Originally shown at Sundance, the French version was a cutesy mixture of talking penguins and pop songs performed by Emile Simon. In the American release, however, the penguins only chirp and the only one who talks is narrator Morgan Freeman - in a tone of subdued awe. Penguins are birds that swim but cannot fly. They walk upright like man, but there the resemblance ends, though some of us have been known to waddle a bit as we get older. Although they have been around a long time, 40 million years to be exact, most of us know very little about their mating rituals and how they survive in the minus 80 degree Antarctic winters. The film tells us that each year they must leave their home in the ocean and march single file to their breeding ground seventy miles away, the place where each of them was born. 

When they are tired they simply flop on their bellies and slide along the ice. They have fortified themselves for the treacherous journey through snow and heavy winds by feeding in the ocean for the past three months. Like couples on a dance floor, when they arrive at the breeding ground that is thick with ice, they choose their partner and pair off. What qualities they look for in a mate is not known but there is no lengthy courtship and no need for dinner and a movie. They huddle together in the thousands for protection during the frigid winter as they await their egg. When the egg arrives, they perform a delicate transfer from the female to the male so that "she" can return to the ocean for food. 

Any exposure to the cold even for a split second and the embryo will freeze to death. The eggs are held on the tops of their feet protected by a flap of skin and the fathers go without food for up to four months as they huddle together for warmth until the females return. The filming crew, consisting of director Luc Jacquet, cinematographer Laurent Chalet and Jerome Mason and composer Alex Wurman spent a total of thirteen months filming in the Antarctic and has given us an experience of breathtaking beauty. The footage of the penguins swimming in 1700 feet of water looking for food is little short of amazing as they hold their breath for fifteen minutes and do everything to avoid the predator leopard seals who see them as a meal. 

If they survive the ocean, they return to their hungry spouses who by now have lost half of their body weight but somehow have enough strength in reserve to go back to the sea for food. Unfortunately some of the older ones will die along the way. When the father returns, he finds his chick instinctively through the chick's unique sound that only a parent could love. Please, no jokes about this being a "chick flick". When the babies are strong enough, they head out on their own to experience their first dip in the ocean. It is the end of the cycle and the harbinger of a new one. Thanks you Mr. Jacquet for a well spent afternoon and an enlightening experience.


Howard Schumann
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