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March of the Penguins

How did a National Geographic documentary spark discussions about everything from God to climate change?

Nathalie Rothschild

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‘In the harshest place on Earth, love finds a way.’ These are the words of Morgan Freeman in his voiceover to March of the Penguins, a National Geographic documentary which is tipped to become the feel-good movie of the winter. The place Morgan is talking about is the Antarctic, the love story is that of the emperor penguins, one of the few creatures left in this rugged and desolate landscape.

But how did a nature film about penguins turn into a lesson in human family values and the errors of the theory of evolution? The penguins are seen as evidence of the workings of God, and as examples of parental duty. Despite French director Luc Jacquet’s own objections – ‘For me there is no doubt about evolution. I am a scientist. The intelligent design theory is a step back to the thinking of 300 years ago’ (1) – he and the wobbly birds he spent a year filming have unwittingly become heroes of intelligent design enthusiasts and the American religious right. According to conservative talkshow host and movie critic Michael Medved, the film is ‘sort of “The Passion of the Penguins”’ (2).

Jacquet really wanted his film to spark discussion about climate change. The film’s website includes a reminder and warning about global warming and Jacquet has said that much of public opinion appears insensitive to its dangers (3). But he also feels that lecturing people won’t help – instead, ‘the best way to protect the planet is to get people to like it’ (4). Maybe that’s why he chose, in the original French version, to have actors give individual voices to the main family characters: daddy penguin, mummy penguin and baby penguin. The film itself doesn’t mention global warming, but apparently the hope is that a bit of empathy will help people love the planet and feel for the penguins.

Life as an Antarctic emperor penguin certainly isn’t easy. Every year, after a month-long relatively harmonious summer of swimming around, feeding on calamari and fish, they emerge from the sea to march 70 miles to safer nesting grounds, far inland where there is stable ice for the whole breeding period, and where they are relatively sheltered by icebergs that can break the wind. Hostile is an understatement for this climate where winds can blow at up to 150 miles per hour and temperatures can plummet to -101°C.

Once the emperor penguins have reached their destination, the mating begins; since the females outnumber the males, they have to be quick to lay their wings on a partner. In the coming months, the penguins fight for the survival of their eggs and, later, their chicks. During this time, the males and females, or as they are referred to in the film, the fathers and mothers, take turns to go back and forth to the sea to fill their bellies to regurgitate and feed their chicks.

With a storyline and music score which out-Disneys both Bambi and The Lion King, March of the Penguins is, as Freeman tells us, a true story of a ‘mysterious ritual that dates back thousands of years’, of ‘a nearly impossible journey to find a mate’. Yet those who have hailed March of the Penguins as an ode to monogamous relationships and the dedication of parents, have clearly overlooked the fact that though penguins don’t cheat on each other, their relationships only last one winter; after their chicks are big enough to swim on their own, the parents split up and abandon them.

According to the website Christian Answers, March of the Penguins can teach us lessons about love, perseverance, the existence of God and camaraderie. In equally exalted tones, a contributor to the Christian Science Monitor wrote: ‘Until the other day, I had thought of penguins as slightly comical birds, maybe the punch line of a joke. Then I saw this summer’s surprise hit film, March of the Penguins, and my perspective changed. Maybe it’s not too much to say that now, in penguins, I see more evidence of divine action.’

Whether the ‘design’ of the emperor penguin is intelligent or not is debatable. Their behaviour is predictable, and when they have stood around for weeks on end in freezing blizzards without any food, they have too little energy to fend off preying birds who go after their chicks. And considering that all their standing around is because of their ‘devotion’ to their offspring, this seems very unfortunate indeed.

The emperor penguins are birds that can’t fly. They are happiest in the sea, but can only stay in the water for 15 minutes at a time. They have to repeat their dangerous three-week trek several times a year, but are very bad at marching. For months, they have to balance their eggs on their feet, and if the egg or the newborn chick is exposed to the cold for more than a few seconds they die.

I don’t mean to cause offence to any penguins out there, but surely the most intelligent creatures in this documentary are the men behind the camera? Isolated from the rest of the world for over a year, the two cameramen, Jérôme Maison, a sailor with marine biology experience who specialised in the high seas, and Laurent Chalet, director of photography with years of both documentary and narrative feature experience, managed to get truly stunning shots of the Antarctic landscape, close-ups of the penguins and their chicks, both on land and under water – where the birds chase after plankton and small fish and where they are threatened by leopard seals, who suddenly appear and snap their jaws at the diving penguins.

Some commentators have seen evidence of the existence of God in March of the Penguins and some have seen a mirror image of humanity. But humanity is imposed on these birds – partly by the voiceovers and the suggestive music score, and partly by film critics who have insisted that the penguins behave like humans and are capable of human affection.

True, it is heart breaking to see the penguins push at their frozen chicks’ dead bodies with their beaks and let out cries. True, it is heart warming when the penguins seem to show signs of affection and selflessness. And it is incredibly cute when the chicks peek out from under their parents’ potbellies and take their first wobbly steps on to the ice. But it’s just anthropomorphic overkill to say that emperor penguins, whose existence is a repetitive cycle of hardship and suffering, are just like us. Let’s leave the hybridisation of animals and humans to the fantasy world of Walt Disney.

(1) ‘Puzzle of the penguin trek parable’, Jack Malvern, The Times, 22 October 2005

(2) ‘Birds’ mating behaviour turned into political endorsement for traditional values’, Jake Tapper and Avery Miller, ABC News, 11 October 2005

(3) March of the Penguins official website

(4) March of the Penguins director Luc Jacquet, National Geographic, 24 June 2005

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