Samuel Beckett once wrote, “I cannot go on. I’ll go on.” Those two simple sentences convey the plight Emperor penguins endure every mating season in the captivating new documentary, The March of the Penguins.
“The Emperor’s Journey” is a better translation of the original French title, “Marche de L’empereur,” and is more in keeping with the sea birds’ inherent majesty.
Writer/Director Luc Jacquet gets up close and personal with the marching penguins, demystifying the notion that they are somehow comical; there is nothing comical about them, really, as their existence is far too perilous, their behavior too noble, and their demeanor too regal.
Every year, a fertile group of Emperor penguins takes itself out of its sea home to make the long trek across the Antarctic pack ice to their breeding ground. It will challenge them in ways only some of them are prepared for. After walking, sometimes gliding on their padded bellies, miles across the ice, they must do what nature intended and choose a partner. It’s no easy task when the females out-number the males but somehow they pair up, fall in love, mate and hope an egg results from their efforts. An Emperor penguin lays only a single egg in the coldest time of the year.
Once the egg reveals itself, the penguins must then face yet another challenging task – to pass the egg from the capable mother to the sometimes capable father. Most of them succeed, but some can’t quite master the art of keeping an egg warm. This ritual is done in order to let the females march back over miles and miles of ice to the sea to feed, half-starving to death, almost to weak to travel. Once they plunge back into the sea, they face more peril as seals and other predators lay in wait.
With bellies full, the mothers then trek back to the breeding ground to relieve the fathers who have been dutifully keeping the eggs warm. Some have even hatched. It is quite something to see hundreds of snow-covered, wind-whipped male penguins huddled together for warmth, who have stood there, with eggs under their bellies, for months without food. Can you imagine human males doing something so selfless?
The mystery of the march of the penguins is not unraveled in the film, even with Morgan Freeman’s helpful voiceover – who can explain the why in the natural world? There is no why. They do. That is all.
It isn’t until the end credits that the filmmaker’s own journey is revealed in clips – the ice they themselves trekked over, how they must have crouched and huddled, like the penguins, to capture the right moment. To have the privilege of being close enough to the penguins to hear the tapping of their fragile eggs on the ice is a privilege not to be taken lightly – and a monumental task for Jacquet and his crew.
The sole complaint – and a very minor one it is — anyone can seem to muster about The March of the Penguins is that it ought to be on DVD rather than the big screen. I suppose it’s more rewarding to see Herbie: Fully Loade? No. The big screen is the only medium that affords viewers the chance to really see these extraordinary creatures so close; it is as vital to the experience as anything.
The only thing equal to the beauty of life is its inevitable horribleness. In Jacquet’s film, the two fight it out, just as they do in our lives and in the lives of all living things every day. And this isn’t Disney where all fuzzy little creatures get to live. This is hard, cold nature where the fittest and the luckiest prevail. What better truth to show to our young ones.Penguins, as it turns out, are quite suited to the medium of film – they are so like us with hoods and jackets on, trudging back and forth in our miserable existence. But they are also vibrant, with swan-like curves to their beaks – and the way they love is done here in a way most of us have never seen. Love and bonding to penguins is necessary – how else would you get creatures to sacrifice so much for their offspring? In case you’ve ever wondered whether or not animals love, this film makes it profoundly clear that, yes, of course they do.