Remember that ’70s song “The Things We Do For Love” by 10cc? You know, the one about walking in the rain and the snow and there’s nowhere to go, and you’re feeling like a part of you is dying?
Well, “March of the Penguins” makes humans look like complete slackers in the romance department.
The things these creatures do for love — or at least for reproduction — include trekking dozens of miles across the Antarctic ice, going for months without food and enduring temperatures of 70 degrees below zero with 100 mph winds. And that’s before the baby emperor penguins even hatch.
French director Luc Jacquet and a team of incredibly brave (and heavily bundled) documentary filmmakers captured this complicated mating ritual with strikingly crisp photography that’s both grand and intimate. The images of this unforgiving terrain (the work of cinematographers Laurent Chalet and Jerome Maison) are so viscerally evocative, you might find yourself shivering in your seat — though narrator Morgan Freeman provides warmth with his typically comforting voice.
Freeman explains the journey that takes place each winter, when thousands of emperor penguins fling their bodies from their comfy, watery homes and waddle off single file, chattering and honking and flapping their flippy wings, until they reach the breeding ground in a cruelly inhospitable part of the continent.
That they have the wherewithal to accomplish this feat is astonishing — though many older penguins die in the process — but it’s also undeniably cute. Shuffling side to side, craning their pointy heads all around, they look like overfed tourists wandering in Times Square. And as the mating process continues, they will come to resemble humans in many more ways.
Once they reach the breeding ground — a spot where the ice is thickest — the males and females randomly pair up until a few stragglers remain, like last call at a bar. Then comes the foreplay: They hold their heads close to each other, lightly nuzzle each other with their beaks, and seem to be whispering sweet nothings in one another’s ears. The sensuous way this sequence is edited makes the penguins look almost as hot as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
They mate once, and if they did it right, a single egg follows. Here’s where things get really dicey: The mother briefly holds the egg on the tops of her feet, covering it with the warmth of her underbelly, before carefully passing it off to the father to protect in the same manner. (Not all the eggs make it — exposure to the elements can kill them in seconds — which Jacquet depicts in bleak fashion.)
Then the mama penguins schlep back to the water to get food, while the daddies, holding their soon-to-be-born chicks, huddle together to endure blinding blizzards.
Fascinating? For sure. But characterizing what these penguins do as an act of love, as the film does, is a reach. How do we know it’s love? They’re penguins! They have to make more penguins. This is what they instinctively know to do. Assigning human emotion to the process comes off as a feeble attempt at the warm fuzzies. (This from a person who tells her Boston terriers she loves them daily, and assumes that if they could speak English, they’d return the sentiment.)
The emperor penguins are also fickle creatures: They only stay together for a year or so while they make the baby penguin, then split up and find someone new the following winter. And the baby-daddies rarely come around to check on their offspring — which is a shame, because the furry little guys are freakishly cute.
One thing that is indisputable: Despite the obvious logistical difficulties in making this film, the result is something that’s deceptively simple yet surprisingly moving.
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