When we think of societies, we tend to think about human societies. However, animals have societies too. The documentary March of the Penguins shows us one up close. Most of us probably have a pretty narrow view of the penguin: we think of them as cute little flightless birds with goofy waddles. This movie shows that penguins actually have a very organized and cooperative society that executes a common goal. Madagascar played penguins for laughs, but was apparently pretty accurate in depicting them as intelligent, ambitious creatures.
Morgan Freeman narrates this look at the annual mating process of penguins, which features footage that is absolutely breathtaking. In the early scenes, we learn that emperor penguins spend their summer months swimming in the sea. But come winter, they know the time has come to mate. They band together in one large group, numbering in the hundreds, and instinctively march off. Thatís right Ė they donít swim and they donít fly; they walk. Thereís an amazing shot in the film of the penguins marching single file as far as the eye can see. They walk day and night, sometimes for a week straight. The ones we follow in the film travel 70 miles to a breeding ground chosen for the thickness of the ice. (It prevents the infants from falling through.) Other groups arrive at the same destination at the same time. How do they know to do this? No one knows for sure, but itís a visible phenomenon.
At the collective spot, the penguins select mates from among the larger group. Itís not clear what criteria they use, but it is obvious that they choose carefully. The mating officially begins. Once the eggs are laid, something interesting happens. The mothers keep the eggs warm for a few days, then leave in search of food. In a carefully choreographed dance, the fathers take over possession of the eggs, balancing them on their feet and covering them with a flap of skin on their stomachs. While the females are away, the males pack together tightly to keep warm during brutal winter storms. The infants who are not killed by the extreme cold temperatures finally hatch during this period. Then the females come back and the males Ė who have not eaten in months Ė head off in search of food. Predators and winter storms are common hazards, yet the group members instinctively look out for one another.
March of the Penguins is an extraordinary movie because it shows us every step in this process. The filmmakers have managed to get close enough to allow their cameras to record these amazing animals as they go through their yearly ritual. You can see every step in astonishing detail. The result is similar to Winged Migration, a documentary from a few years ago that gave an up close look at migrating birds. Movies like this are really valuable because theyíre educational but also because they give us a new appreciation of the animal kingdom. Whoever would have thought that penguins would be so organized, so purpose-driven?
It is one thing to hear about this mating ritual, but itís something else altogether to see it. When you view the image of hundreds of penguins marching single file, or packing themselves together for warmth, or delicately protecting their eggs during a raging blizzard, it takes your breath away. March of the Penguins beautifully details what is an unexpectedly difficult process. The birds make tremendous sacrifices in order to reproduce. There are the long marches, months spent tending to the eggs on the breeding ground, hunger and starvation, and the constant threat of losing the infants to temperature conditions. When the eggs hatch and little penguins pop out, we can feel that the effort was worth it. We can also sense the joy the birds have at successfully making the journey.
The movie doesnít shy away from showing the hardships. A predator is shown snatching an infant, and a few of the babies succumb to the conditions. However, these moments only serve to magnify the accomplishment that penguin births really are. Somehow, these creatures go on this adventure every single year, willingly subjecting themselves to multiple hardships for the joy of bringing a child into the world.
Itís not hard to identify with the penguins. We have a lot in common with them. March of the Penguins shows how similar humans are to them. We also come to a time in our lives when we meet the right partner and feel the call to have children. We do whatever it takes to ensure that out children enter the world healthy and well-fed. And, last but not least, we share the fruits of this venture with other members of our society. Itís part of who we Ė and the penguins Ė are.
In a summer thatís been full of superheroes and action stars, interstellar battles and Oompa-Loompas, here is a film of beautiful simplicity that left me spellbound. March of the Penguins takes us to a place we never thought weíd see and shows us sights weíll never forget. It is nothing short of magical.
( out of four)
Note: Although March of the Penguins is rated G, it does show some of the life and death struggles of its subjects. These scenes may be upsetting for very sensitive children.
March of the Penguins is rated G. The running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes.
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