Each winter, alone in the pitiless ice deserts of Antarctica, deep in the most inhospitable terrain on Earth, a remarkable journey takes place as it has done for millennia. Emperor penguins in their thousands abandon their deep ocean home and clamber onto the frozen ice to begin their long journey – on foot – of over 100 kilometres, into a region so bleak, so extreme, it supports no other wildlife at this time of year. It is their breeding ground, a place where the ice is thick enough to prevent their young crashing through to the freezing waters below. In single file, the penguins march, buffeted by blizzards and gale force winds. Resolute, indomitable, driven by the overpowering urge to reproduce, to assure the survival of the species. On arrival, they start finding their mate for this season and face the hardest part of it all.
Review by Louise Keller:
A miracle of a film, March of the Penguins is one of the year’s joys. This extraordinary glimpse into the life of the emperor penguins is far more than a story of survival: it is a unique love story of immense proportions. I sat wide-eyed throughout this marvellous documentary that offers drama, romance and touches of comedy. I felt as though I went through a landslide of emotions. From laughter to tears, we experience it all through the pathos-filled journey of the penguin. Morgan Freeman’s commanding narration holds our attention with a script that is entertaining and understated. Music, too, is used to best advantage, with a haunting five note motif that lingers, just like the arctic chill.
We join these amazing creatures in their home habitat in the icy cold of Antarctica. The ice that forms the land mass is stark white with reflections of the surrounding bright turquoise waters. They might be birds, but the penguins feed in the sea, able to hold their breath for up to 15 minutes, as they swim among the fish. And at the end of summer, they leap from the waters, land on their white bellies and dig their claw-like webbed feet into the snow. Then, standing upright, as the ocean around them begins to freeze, they begin their long trek inland to mate.
In silhouette, the caravan of penguins look like hooded figures crossing the ice. Their human-ness extends to more than their appearance as they display social behaviour not unlike our own. It’s as though they are conversing at a cocktail party, flapping arms, as the rituals of courtship begin. The egg may be the culmination of mating, but there is still a long way to go before new life is guaranteed. There is the delicate transfer of egg from the mother to the father and the ensuing challenge for the new babysitter is to literally weather the storm. At temperatures of minus 80 degrees, the male penguins huddle together while the females retrace the many steps of their 70 mile journey to feed in the ocean. The reversal of roles between male and female is a real eye opener as is the willingness of both to endure great hardship to fulfill their strong instinct to reproduce.
There are some indescribably beautiful moments, like the egg hatching and a little woolly newborn taking his first breath, or first steps. But there are many hurdles to overcome just to survive and despair and elation sit side by side. An uplifting experience for young and old, March of the Penguins is magic.