March of the Penguins


Antarctic Emperors

Cast: Penguins, Narration by Morgan Freeman

Director: Luc Jacquet

Plot Summary: A documentary that follows a group of penguins as they make their way to their birthing spot, where they mate, protect their young, and gather food to survive the winter.

Everything you ever wanted to know about the emperor penguin is on display in this documentary. The plot summary captures what the movie is about in essence, but fails to deliver the emotional impact of the film. I sure have to admire these animals. Born to live in the sea, where they can dive to over one thousand feet and stay under for twenty minutes, they must make an arduous journey over ice-covered land to mate and reproduce. Certainly not designed to walk, the penguins have a waddling gait that is, of course, charming in its black-suited dignity.

The movie, narrated by the dignified Morgan Freeman, chronicles the tale of just one winter season. The penguins have been doing this for millennia. First, the parents must make a trek across the frozen Antarctica to the place where they themselves were born. Then each, male and female, must find each other. Without the help of conversation or, the two eventually do hitch up. It’s sweet to see them standing close together, occasionally dipping their long necks to touch beaks.

After the female has given birth, she protects the egg by placing it on top of her feet and under the thickness of her stomach fat and fur. But the task of protecting the young is not her job. It’s the male, and the female is the one to go off and hunt for food. Interesting sex reversal. To do that, the egg must be transferred from her to him, not an easy task without opposable thumbs. A few eggs don’t make it, and fall to the ground, where the biting winds and numbing cold crack the shell and kill the chick. Then the female must again walk across miles of frozen wasteland in order to get back to the sea and find food, both for her and her young. As if the trip were not hard enough, waiting for her in the water are seals, the penguin’s natural predator. And you thought those cute seals playing with balls at the aquarium were harmless! Not here.

Meanwhile the male penguin must protect the egg against winter’s wrath. They all huddle together, backs to the wind, taking turns on the outside while constantly moving. Again, not an easy task, and some eggs are lost in the shuffle. Not having eaten in months, some simply die of weakness. But, if they can hold off, the females do eventually return. By then most of the eggs have hatched, so this is the first time the female has seen their young. And, finally, before the male goes off to get their own meal, the whole family is united. It’s touching to see them all together.

The last part of the film focuses on the little chicks as they emerge from their mother’s care and start walking around. As you can imagine they are as cute as kittens. But even down here they are prey, to more familiar (and larger) winged birds. But if they can survive that and the cold, they grow up and the parents do eventually leave them to fend for themselves. and to return to this place when they are ready. The cycle begins anew.

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