March of the Penguins

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We’ve been spoiled in Britain when it comes to nature documentaries. Since the 1950s, the British public has had innumerable superb expeditions into the wonderful world of wildlife beamed into their homes thanks to a combination of the BBC and the national treasure that is Sir David Attenborough, all of which have been in equal measures fascinating and expertly produced.

As such, it may be rather hard to understand just why this documentary about penguins, finally getting a release over here after several months despite originating just over the water in France, has done so spectacularly well around the world. In the UK, after all, it would probably just have been put out at around 8pm on a weeknight on BBC2.

In the US in particular, however, they’ve gone wild for it. Critics over there were almost unanimous in their praise for this beautifully-shot look at the annual migration of Emperor Penguins to their traditional breeding grounds, lauding it as a bold new step in documentary filmmaking while simultaneously falling in love with these funny-looking flightless birds for their (apparently) strangely human attitudes to life and love.

A lot of this is thanks to director Luc Jacquet’s deliberate, if subtle, attempts to make his subjects more human in appearance. The focus on mating, if done by our own Sir David, would likely have a few wry asides about how these penguins tend to mate for life in a natural world equivalent to marriage, but it would be kept away from the main focus. Here, this parallel is hard to avoid making.

Thanks in part to the American Evangelical Right’s obsession with marriage and the family as the solution to all society’s ills, for the English-language version, expertly narrated by Morgan Freeman, this “love” angle has been played up even more. After all, if monogamy and dedication to one’s offspring can be found in nature, it must be God’s will, right?

But despite the rather cheesy attempts to make these beautiful creatures seem human, and although we have all been informed of the lives of penguins innumerable times by Attenborough documentaries on the BBC, the extraordinary resilience of these birds is still astounding and absorbing. Huddling together in temperatures reaching nearly minus 60 degrees Celsius in winds of over 100 miles per hour, it is impossible not to marvel at how nature can not only be so furious, but also how anything can possibly survive such extreme climates.

The fact that all this takes place in the visually stunning Antarctic, perfectly shot by the film’s two French cinematographers, and that at the cinema the vastness of this icily harsh world becomes that much more powerful should ensure that you won’t regret venturing into the cold of a British winter to see a bunch of penguins try and survive something even worse.