March of the Penguins, Sept 05

Even with its dense insulation of 70 feathers per square inch, the emperor penguin’s survival and procreation in the coldest, harshest climate on earth is nothing short of a miracle. It lays a single egg in winter when temperatures fall to minus 80° F and winds exceed 100 miles per hour. Against the greatest odds, as few as 20 percent of the eggs become the next generation of Antarctica’s only land-dwelling animals.

This rare documentary from director/ screenwriter Luc Jacquet shows us the life cycle of the emperor, driven not only by the instinct to survive but also by the force of love. And as hearty as these creatures may be, we are equally amazed that a team of humans could withstand Arctic conditions and deliver this intimate close-up vision of the unfathomable life of penguins at the bottom of the earth.

“My goal,” says Jacquet, “is to dig from the ice a story which has never seen the light of day for want of a teller. A true story, however extraordinary. A story repeated every winter, as it has been for hundreds of thousands of years.”

Jacquet came to the project by way of a classified ad seeking “a fearless biologist to spend fourteen months at the end of the world.” The test for the filmmakers was not only setting up camp in the forbidding climate but also finessing their cameras close enough to observe the unpredictable colony without disrupting it—or hundreds of eggs could be lost. This, says Jacquet, “gives you a great sense of responsibility.”

Reminiscent of Winged Migration, also a French production, and narrated by the gentle voice of Morgan Freeman, March of the Penguins demonstrates the penguins’ annual migration—by foot, single file—leaving the ocean to cross the ice and tenderly ensure the survival of their species. They return to their breeding ground to find their mates, to engage in a dazzling ritual of courtship, to procreate, and to produce an egg, which they will insulate from the biting cold to give it life.

Originally intended for television, the amazing footage created a 98-minute feature film of these rugged but tender birds whose lives of hardship are crafted around the desire to parent their young. This almost romantic story shows tremendous dignity, both of the emperor penguin and of the filmmakers’ respect for this invincible species that redefines hardship and determination. Do not miss.