Documentary or not, sometimes the simplest ideas lead to the best films. Even so, it just wouldn't be right to call March of the Penguins (AKA March of the Emperor, 2005) a simple film, since it follows the yearly ritual of emperor penguins as they traverse the difficult landscape of Antarctica. As the only living creatures that spend a substantial amount of time on land there, the flightless birds are built tough but still come across as pretty darn cute. Their annual trek above their underwater homes is for the sole purpose of procreation, not recreation (since it requires a specific breeding ground to block most of the icy winds), though it remains unknown how they manage to pull it off every year. They just do, though not all of them survive the journey.
After watching The Shawshank Redemption (again) and this fantastic documentary in the same week, I've come to the conclusion that I'd pay money to hear Morgan Freeman recite the dictionary. For the American release of the film, Freeman provides the all-knowing third person narrative that adds a warm and familiar layer to the stark, snowy visuals. He's not present in most international versions of March of the Penguins, though. From the original French version all the way over to Taiwan, the majority of worldwide audiences were presented with a more talkative picture; in other words, the starring penguins were actually given dubbed voices. Since I hadn't seen an international version of the film during its long theatrical run, I can't comment as to whether the dubbed voices would help or hurt the film in any specific way. I can tell you, however, that the calm, structured style of Freeman's narrative is a perfect partner to this 80-munite modern marvel of a documentary.
Had these differences been compared and contrasted on Warner Bros.' DVD release of March of the Penguins, it would've made for a striking presentation of an already-great film. Sadly, the dubbed international versions aren't mentioned anywhere, though we're at least treated to an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the filmmakers' difficult task of recording it in the first place.
Even so, let's focus on what's here. No matter who's doing the talking on any version of the film, March of the Penguins is primarily a visual affair. Though the continent's brutal climate (which makes "80 below zero" seem like a warm summer day) made for difficult shooting conditions, director Luc Jacquet has created a truly loving portrait of these most unusual birds. Their built-in dedication to survival is one thing, but their commitment to keeping their young alive is another.
Traditional parental roles are swapped in many cases, like when we see unhatched eggs entrusted to fathers while Mom goes off in search of food. Groups of soon-to-be-parents huddle together tightly to keep one another warm, changing positions regularly to ensure that each bird has time in the center. Eggs are carefully guarded in a warm "flap" between their legs, making the act of walking even more difficult than usual. One false move can expose the egg to the harsh weather, killing the life inside in a matter of seconds. Sure, it's tough to raise a child in today's world of media saturation and random acts of unkindness---but we've got it pretty easy in comparison, don't we?
To its credit, March of the Penguins remains at the top rung of the documentary ladder for its level of objectiveness. The harsh reality of the climate is never overlooked, while the presence of life, death and constant danger is presented in an understated but mature fashion. It's still a family film through and through, yet it's one where adults will enjoy it just as much as the kids...if not more. There's no cheap innuendo or social satire, no flavor-of-the-month modern rock and...well, only one celebrity voice-over (though I'm glad they opted for Morgan Freeman instead of, say, Hilary Duff). Even so, March of the Penguins holds up as one of the finest documentaries in recent memory, easily deserving of its box office success and excellent word-of-mouth. But just how well did it do?
Currently, March of the Penguins holds its rank as the second highest grossing documentary of all time, perched right under Michael Moore's provocative Fahrenheit 9/11. Popularity has never been a clear gauge of a film's actual quality, but March of the Penguins is a clear case where movie-going masses recognized a great production and really latched on. It's one thing to get the kids to enjoy the latest Disney romp, but it's another matter entirely to watch them go nuts over a nature documentary on the big screen. Here's hoping that we see more from this genre in the near future.
For now, fans of the film are left with a solid DVD release presented by Warner Bros. There's a lot to like about this package---including a good technical presentation and a decent lineup of bonus features---though it's not without a few missed opportunities. Even so, it's easily one of the better documentary discs of the year and should survive countless viewings by penguin lovers of all ages.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality:
Presented in its original 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio, March of the Penguins looks good despite its limited source material. Filmed under extremely harsh conditions, one can only expect a modest level of quality throughout this documentary---and given Warner's excellent visual track record, I'm sure they did the best they could. Generally speaking, close-ups reveal excellent detail and clarity, while many wide-angle scenes are noticeably softer and less defined. Haloing and very mild edge enhancement are both evident in certain spots, while a few brief underwater scenes also seemed a bit murky and oversaturated. Nighttime footage is also grainy, especially during one time-lapse scene featuring the Southern Lights. DVD fanatics shouldn't worry, though: March of the Penguins still offers plenty of stunning visuals, especially given the circumstances.
The audio presentation is a bit more reliable, offering a fine English (or Spanish) 5.1 Surround mix that reveals a fine amount of ambience and atmosphere. The narration by Morgan Freeman comes through clean and clear, while the harsh weather offers a mild amount of surround activity. It's a shame that a full-fledged DTS mix couldn't have been included, but what we get should please anyone looking for a strong audio presentation. English, Spanish and French captions and subtitles are also provided.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging:
Seen above, the main menus are surprisingly static but offer subtle background music from the film's excellent score. The layout and overall design are also very simple, making for exceptionally smooth and easy navigation (though I've been told that the final release actually utilizes a different scheme entirely). This 80-minute film has been divided into more than a dozen chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. The actual packaging is very straightforward, as this one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase with quote-riddled cover artwork. A small handful of promotional inserts have been included in lieu of an actual booklet.
It seems as if Warner wasn't sure whether to aim this DVD at kids or adults, but at least there's a little something for everyone. Up first is a solid behind-the-scenes documentary called Of Penguins and Men (53 minutes, below left). It's thankfully presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.66:1), though there don't seem to be any chapter breaks provided. Completed by the filmmakers as shooting progressed---like a standard "video diary", though it's also got voiceover narration---this documentary offers an interesting alternate tale of survival. There's plenty of overlap between their story and that of the penguins, but it's still an interesting watch and a welcome addition to the disc. Also here is an episode of National Geographic's "Crittercam" (24 minutes), which takes a look at emperor penguins and seems to be tied in directly to the film itself. It's equal parts fluffy and informative, though there's some pretty harsh footage of a poor li'l penguin being mauled by a leopard seal. As Mom used to say when we watched Wild America, "Well, that's because they can't go to McDonald's".
Also here is more light-hearted fare: 8 Ball Bunny (7 minutes, above right), the classic Looney Toons short featuring Bugs attempting to haul a stranded penguin back home to the South Pole (though whether or not that's his actual home is another story). It's a thoughtful inclusion---and let's face it, any disc with a great documentary and a cartoon on it earns bonus points. Last but not least, we're treated to the film's Hollywood-ized Theatrical Trailer, also narrated by Morgan Freeman.
There's some good bonus material on board here, but it was modestly disappointing not to see any comparison between the American cut and the aforementioned international versions. On a related note, I'd have liked to hear more from the filmmakers (aside from the documentary, of course), who seemed to have already been brushed slightly aside with the new narration. Even so, there's enough here to consider March of the Penguins a solid release that's more than just a great film.
When a widely released film is capable of entertaining the entire family, it's always a welcome surprise---but when it's a true story, it's even better. Easily on par with the monumental Winged Migration, March of the Penguins is a superior documentary that entertains, informs and enlightens. It's a genuine crowd-pleaser that was recognized as such, offering a candid look at the world's harshest landscape and the animals that survive there. Warner has done a good job with this release, pairing the film with a decent technical presentation and a handful of diverse bonus features. It's one disc that just about everyone should have in their collection. Highly Recommended.
Other Links of Interest: Winged Migration DVD Review | Smack the Penguin!
Randy Miller III is a moderately affable desk jockey and art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA (how's that for diversity?). In his free time, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.