They say actors should never work with animals, but for directors who are gifted with patience, curiosity, and a keen eye for the nuances of spontaneous behavior, there are few better subjects. The French have proved to be particularly good at such films, and in recent years they have treated us to such nature flicks as Microcosmos and Winged Migration. Now we can add March of the Penguins, Luc Jacquet's documentary about the breeding habits of one of the world's largest flightless birds, to the menagerie.

The film should find an especially appreciative audience among younger children and their parents. There is something naturally funny about penguins—the way they waddle as though their pants won't stay up, the way their elegant appearance seems at odds with their clumsiness—and the children at the screening I attended found it all quite amusing. For parents, the educational value of the film (it's produced by National Geographic) is a definite bonus.

The family that waddles together, stays together

The family that waddles together, stays together

The story begins in March, when the southern hemisphere's summer comes to an end and the birds begin their slow, single-file march towards the old breeding grounds. Their pilgrimage ends dozens of miles from the water, in a place where the ice floor is thick and safe, and the walls surrounding the penguins can protect them from the wind. The birds spend some weeks looking for mates (the males are in short supply, so the females tend to fight over them), and in June, the lucky mothers give birth to an egg.

The film goes out of its way to stress the commonalities between penguins and their human observers. Emperor penguins are serially monogamous, finding a different partner every year but sticking to that partner for the duration of the mating season; and since the film covers only one of these seasons, it can hold a mirror of sorts up to human families by following the travails of a single penguin "family," showing how father and mother take turns incubating the egg and finding food for the chick.

Nothing like a little TLC from a parent

Nothing like a little TLC from a parent

This is a more hazardous process than you might expect. Each parent will go without food for weeks or months at a time so that he or she can watch the egg or chick while the other parent goes back to the sea (which is now even further away, thanks to the growing ice shelf) in search of fish, krill, and other bits of food with which to feed their young. But the egg—which stays safe from the elements by resting on the parents' feet and under the parents' rather fat bellies—must never touch the ice, or else it will freeze, crack, and bring a premature end to the family unit. When the parents exchange duties, they must therefore pass the egg between them through a delicate shuffle of their oversized feet.

Article continues below

Matters are complicated further by predators. The female penguins, having lost so much of their body weight just laying the egg, are the first to go back to the sea; but the leopard seals that lurk there eat penguins just as penguins eat fish, and narrator Morgan Freeman tells us that the seal that kills a penguin takes not only her life, but also "that of her unborn chick, who will never be fed."

Does it get any cuter than this

Does it get any cuter than this

When the chicks have hatched and learned to walk, they are assaulted by other birds that fly in and peck at their necks. A bereaved mother also tries to steal another penguin's chick after her own child freezes to death, but the group won't allow it; the other penguins gang up on her and fight her back. Scenes like these may cause young children a bit of anxiety, but they are handled with discretion.

Visually, the film is a bit of a mixed bag. Jacquete captures some striking images, ranging from the epic to the intimate, from the penguins' long shuffling pilgrimage across the barren ice to the dense texture of the penguins' feathers; but some of the footage also has the tacky look of digital video, especially where the underwater scenes are concerned.

Penguins on the march

Penguins on the march

The film also suffers from a tendency to impose human emotion on its creatures. Freeman's narration, written by Jordan Roberts (Around the Bend), tells us things like "the pain is unbearable" and "the reunion is a joyful one." While these particular descriptions may be warranted by the animal behavior on display, we might wonder if the film goes too far in calling itself a "love story," as opposed to a story about, say, primal reproductive instincts. (Is it really love if the characters have different sexual partners every year?) Then again, the original French version of this film was reportedly even more extreme in this regard; instead of an objective narrator, it had three actors providing the inner thoughts of the mama, papa, and baby penguins.

But never mind such quibbles. Visually, the film is a remarkable scientific documentation of penguin life; and if it tilts toward fable or parable, there is still something noteworthy here. As families and as a larger social unit, huddled together against the cold, the penguins provide a remarkable example of cohesion and co-operation from which, no doubt, we humans could learn. And in the words of a classic Disney cartoon, "There's nothing so peculiar as a penguin / Unless it's you and I."

Article continues below

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. What do you think we can learn from watching animal behavior? Are there any similar examples in the Bible? (E.g. "Consider the ant and be wise," Proverbs 6:6-)

  2. Do you think these animals "love" each other? How do you define or understand "love"? Is it emotional? Is it based in certain kinds of behavior? Is it spiritual? Is it uniquely human, a sign that we are made in the image of God? Or is it reflected in other parts of God's creation?

  3. Why do you think the film so strongly encourages us to identify with the penguins? Should we react to the leopard seals' attacks on the penguins any differently than we do the penguins' attacks on their prey? Why or why not? How do the cinematography and editing affect which creatures we identify with?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

March of the Penguins is rated G. The film is a documentary about animals living in the wild, and it therefore includes a few scenes of conflict between the animals, such as predators attacking their prey, as well as some sad scenes, such as one in which an egg freezes and cracks, killing the embryo inside; there is also a scene of penguins mating. But all these scenes are handled with discretion and are appropriate for most children. The narration also includes a few lines that allude to evolution, but not in an overly literalistic way.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 07/14/05

Morgan Freeman seems to be campaigning for the role of America's Narrator. After his Oscar-winning performance as the storyteller of Million Dollar Baby, he's now narrating Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds and a documentary about flightless waterfowl … March of the Penguins. Apparently, the story he's telling here is a compellingly cool and delightful summertime escape. It's a documentary about penguins pushing their way through rough conditions to one of the most forbidding places on earth, following instincts that leave human beings shaking their heads in awe.

Mainstream raves are piling up here.

Audiences tired of badly-made, overly-budgeted and utterly formulaic Hollywood movies have started looking elsewhere for their entertainment—and one of the beneficiaries has been a National Geographic documentary about the mating cycle of Emperor Penguins in the Antarctic!

Article continues below
from Film Forum, 08/04/05

March of the Penguins, narrated by Morgan Freeman, has cracked the box office top ten for two weeks running, and it seems destined to become the second-highest-grossing documentary of all time, after Fahrenheit 9/11.

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) writes, "I won't try too hard to overlay human meaning onto the lives of these penguins, but Freeman goes out of his way to do so in a couple of places ('They're not that different from us, really'), so it's worth noting the great level of personal sacrifice penguin parents exhibit hatching and protecting their young. Survival mandates the involvement of both parents. To thrive, hard work is required. And great physical affection and selfless love are demonstrated along the way."

Andrew Coffin (World) has some problems with the script, but says the story "easily stands on its own two very short legs … That any one of these eggs survives is a remarkable feat—and, some might suppose, a strong case for intelligent design. It's sad that acknowledgment of a creator is absent in the examination of such strange and wonderful animals. But it's also a gap easily filled by family discussion after the film."

from Film Forum, 08/11/05

Matt Conner (Relevant) says, "The visuals here are absolutely stunning, and [writer/director Luc] Jacquet chooses both the beauty of the penguin up close and the jagged edges of the larger landscape to accentuate the story. The warmth of the familiar voice of [narrator Morgan] Freeman adds the perfect blanket to wrap around the audience on the journey. The closing credits offer an insightful few minutes into the perils of making the movie. For me, the tagline for this movie—'In the harshest place on Earth, love finds a way'—prompted hours of conversation about the human condition and what there is to learn. At the same time, this is a great movie to go and see with your family and just enjoy the sights. It succeeds on every level and is definitely worth the trip."

Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman (Cinema in Focus) are less impressed than most critics—Christian or mainstream. Giving the film only two stars, they say, "The beauty of the film is also its weakness. With little narration and even less information, the film becomes more a work of art than a documentary of the birds' lives."

from Film Forum, 01/26/06

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "Watching March of the Penguins, we may well reflect that if all human couples did at least as well by their offspring as Emperor penguins do—if in general we left our partners and young in the lurch only in the event of unfortunate encounters with large predators, or similarly deadly circumstances—the world would be a better place. Still and all, marriage has a lot more to do with how we are different from penguins than how we are the same."

March of the Penguins
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
Directed By
Luc Jacquet
Run Time
1 hour 20 minutes
Morgan Freeman, Romane Bohringer, Charles Berling
Theatre Release
July 22, 2005 by Warner Independent Pictures
Browse All Movie Reviews By: