Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

March of the Penguins

(La Marche de l'empereur, France, 2009)

This French film is the most successful documentary ever, after Fahrenheit 9/11. I’m not quite sure why, but first, the things I like about it.

The life of the emperor penguin is one of almost unimaginable hardships. They live in the worst place in the world, and to reproduce they have to perform a complicated series of treks that, at first, defy understanding. I mean, why not go to Patagonia to mate? You could lay your eggs on the ground, not have to shield them from the ice 24/7 for three months. But there are predators in Patagonia, and precious few in Antarctica. We see an albatross harrying chicks, but there can’t be many of them. This film, made under hardships almost as unimaginable as those the penguins endure, is a visual delight. I was continually astounded at the shots they got, and at the devotion of the filmmakers.

Also, who doesn’t love a penguin? I mean, they waddle comically, they are cute little guys in tuxedos, even the girls. In fact, a human would find it impossible to tell a guy from a girl without an autopsy … which leads me to wonder, do they ever make mistakes themselves while courting? Many animals exhibit homosexual behavior; do penguins? The film never addresses how they differentiate. Maybe no one knows.

But hey, none of this was new to me. David Attenborough covered the same territory, though not at such length. I have seen better nature documentaries, some made for television, and even a better documentary about birds: Winged Migration. So why this film? Why such a box office bonanza?

This brings me to what I didn’t like. I understand the Christian Right (CR) has embraced this film. Part of it is they see it as an argument for Intelligent Design. The saga of the penguins is so bizarre … how could it have evolved? Well, the film steers clear of most of that issue (which one reviewer thought might be one reason why the CR loved it, a whole nature film with no mention of evolution).

Here’s how: A bird species which shared the child-rearing between the sexes (and lots of other birds do the same) adapted to incubating its eggs on the ice as Antarctica moved relentlessly south over the millennia. If you laid your eggs too close to the water’s edge, the ice melted in the spring and your eggs and/or offspring were dumped in the drink. Only those who marched 70 miles inland survived. Eventually all penguins marched 70 miles inland. The others had drowned. Natural selection. Dumb Design. What is so tough about that that Christians can’t understand it? Duuuuuh.

Another theory is that the CR sees penguins as poster critters for “family values.” True, they are devoted to each other as a couple, it would be impossible for either of them to rear chicks alone, but … Hello? They only mate for a year. At the end of that year they abandon the chicks, who have never even been in the water. Next year, they mate with someone new. This is a family?

Oh, well, screw the CR. The real worst thing about the film is that old bullshit, anthropomorphism. Assigning human values to other creatures. The narrator, Morgan Freeman, waxes eloquent on how this is a film about love. ‘Fraid not, Morgan. These are birds. They follow their instincts. (So do we, but we have higher brain functions, I hope, though with some of the CR it’s doubtful. If there is Intelligent Design, how do you explain the existence of Pat Robertson?) I guess you can blame Walt Disney, whose True-Life Adventures in the 1950s, like The Living Desert} and White Wilderness were ground-breaking, awe-inspiring, perfectly marvelous … and had a lot of fakery and way-too-cutesy narration. (Did you know that the famous lemming-suicide sequence was staged in its entirety? In nature, it doesn’t happen.) Ever since there has been that tendency to humanize animal behavior, and it really sucks. The facts, the sights, the wonder of it all, unvarnished, is enough, as Sir Richard has shown over and over. Attenborough may overdo the solemn and awestruck business a bit, but he never embellishes.

It could have been worse. I understand the original, longer, French version had actual voices dubbed in for the penguins. God, that must have been awful.