Though March of the Penguins is released by National Geographic Films, it is not a scientific documentary. It is a story, and it makes a case. It argues that the Emperor Penguin’s strategy for survival is not merely an example of instinct, but of love. Whether you will buy what the movie is selling reveals how you think about animals.
Antarctica is the coldest, darkest, driest, flattest, and one of the harshest places on Earth. Penguins, slippery little blubber tubes, have evolved beautifully for life in its freezing ocean. But every year, they must leave the water to breed.
On tiny legs, like tottering, determined marshmallows, they walk day and night for a week, for up to a hundred miles, to the breeding grounds they have used for thousands of years. The ice is thicker there, so when the thaws come, the babies won’t fall into the water. Here, the penguins will mate, and form an intense pair bond that will last for eight grueling months.
Every species must choose reproductive quantity or quality. A penguin female lays a single egg. In doing so, she loses a third of her body weight. She must eat soon or starve. She carefully transfers the egg, which rests on top of her claws beneath a fold of fat, to the father. Sometimes an egg is dropped. The cold claims the little life in seconds.
It is now endless night, eighty below zero, with hundred mile-per-hour winds. The fathers huddle in a single boiling superorganism, taking turns on the inside. When the mothers finally return, there is a scene where a penguin prods her dead chick, crying out in what sounds like grief. But sometimes her mouth is closed; the sound has been inserted in post production. When the bereft mother tries to steal a chick, it’s not clear that this is the same penguin. I don’t trust the journalistic integrity of this scene, and others that personify the birds with emotion. But as storytelling, it is skillful and affecting.
This is an excellent movie for children, unlike Pooh’s Heffalump Movie and Madagascar , which are pap. But I thought about the scene in Madagascar where a group of penguins hijacks a cruise ship and sails it to the South Pole. They take one look around, and say, “This sucks.” If these “lower animals” could reason, why wouldn’t they move? I lived in Minnesota for eleven years. I often asked the same thing of my neighbors.
It is arrogance to believe that humans are evolution’s highest achievement. We, too, are animals, with less choice than we like to admit. Do penguins do what they do out of love? Maybe the real question is, what is love? Isn’t it partly about survival? Yes, it’s Darwinism, but if readiness to die for your child isn’t love, what is?
March of the Penguins is playing at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.