March of the Penguins features stunning photography. The scenery is bleak and gorgeous, and the penguins are a marvel to watch. It was obviously done under dangerous and very difficult conditions. It gently teaches the basics of the mating cycle of the Emperor penguin. For these alone, it's well worth watching -- in fact, it's well worth paying to see it in a theater, since you won't get nearly as good a picture on DVD.
The penguins are jarringly anthropomorphized in places. (And this is the American version. Talking penguins would have kicked my rating down two or three points.) The director is particularly enamored of the penguins' head-bent-down pose. This appears to be because it looks so touching when interpreted in human terms. But there's no reason to believe that it has the same meaning as the same pose in a human, and so it contributes to the anthropomorphism.
The music, while pleasant and mostly unobtrusive, is still jarringly romantic, and it's totally unnecessary. Why couldn't we have just heard the birds and the wind? That would have done wonders to set the stage in all its bleak beauty. As it was, I found it hard to get involved, and the music was part of what got in the way.
A few people have objected to the natural violence shown. But in fact, the problem for me was that the violence of nature was passed over so lightly. One egg freezes early, another egg freezes late, one or two chicks die, one mama gets offed by a seal and one chick taken by a petrel, all very gently. The penguins marching across the ice appeared stoic (more anthropomorphism) but we get little sense of the difficulty of the trek. And the storms, described accurately as ferocious and deadly, look on camera like a moderate March day in Iowa. Despite the setting, nature is seriously prettified here.
Although the basics of the mating cycle are clearly laid out, I left wishing the movie had told a lot more of the story. They had time. They could have mentioned the explorers who discovered the mating site (fascinating story from the little I know), survival rates (they give numbers for the weight loss -- is the mortality rate too frightening?), why the bird lays so large an egg, dynamics of the ice ridges, aspects of penguin anatomy which enable them to survive the cold and the long fast, how can the penguins slide on their bellies so much without losing their insulation. Could have included a lot more. All in all, some of my favorite part was the credits, where they show a little of the equipment and the setup and the people making the film, and how the penguins interacted with the filmmakers.
Finally several things didn't fit. They said that the penguins mated over thick ice because it was less likely to melt through before they left, but some shots of the location showed rock outcrops, implying land, and so were actually shot elsewhere. They show the females sloshing through a meltwater creek in late winter, when there would be no melting. The narration gets to September and talks about "several months" of back-and-forth treks for feeding, and then suddenly it's only November. The parents leave the chicks on shore "never to see them again", and then the chicks stand around for a month with nothing to eat but gaining weight and strength -- huh? I don't mind that they used some footage out of place for dramatic effect, but they didn't always keep it consistent with the dramatized locale.
I like MotP and recommend it, but with these reservations. It's a good film that could have been a great film.
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