"In some ways, this is a story of survival, a tale of life over death. But it's more than that, really. This is a story about love."
A genre usually relegated to public broadcasting and cable TV, for some reason the nature documentary has made a big comeback in France. In recent years, excellent theatrical documentaries such as Microcosmos, Winged Migration, and now March of the Penguins have all made impressive box office splashes both in their native country and abroad. I don't have an explanation or any theories about why that may be, but it's an interesting trend.
Filmed entirely in Antarctica, from the mild season straight through the harshest winter months, March of the Penguins gives us a bird's eye view, so to speak, of life in the most forbidding environment on Earth. The documentary places us, without on-screen human interaction, into the middle of a colony of Emperor penguins as they make the long trek inland from their fish harvest at the shoreline to the mating grounds over 60 miles inland. Once there, the birds will wail their individual songs (each penguin has its own unique call) until attracting a mate. Eventually the female will lay an egg, but in an intriguing role reversal will transfer it to the male for incubation over the next several months as she waddles back to the water to feed. During this time, the males will band together in massive groups to face the brunt of the most severe winter storms, all the time sitting on their eggs, waiting for the females to return, hopefully in time for the chicks' birth. If lucky, they can transfer the chicks back to the mothers for feeding and nurturing while they, having not eaten in months, trudge that long 60 miles in search of their own food.
It's certainly a hard life being a penguin, and the film doesn't shy away from depicting the threats from predators (penguins make a tasty snack for seals), weather, and abandonment. We're informed that if the female doesn't return in time, the male will leave its chick to the elements so that he can venture off to feed himself. On more than a few occasions do we find penguins, both adults and chicks, starved or frozen to death. Yet the documentary isn't all doom and gloom. If anything, it has a habit of overly anthropomorphizing the birds, making us fawn over their cuteness and wacky hijinks, as if to make the film more friendly to children and families. The voiceover narration (on the English version) by Morgan Freeman is also too talky and at times annoyingly treacly, what with its insistent description of this being a story of love. Bizarrely, the original French version of the movie instead featured actors providing voices for the penguins, which frankly sounds like an even worse idea.
Having viewed them previously only in the safety of zoos, it's rare to see such a close-up view of penguins in their natural habitat, to learn how their bodies have adapted to the environment. This is a fascinating depiction of life under extreme conditions, but even at just 80 minutes the film starts to feel a little protracted, like it would have made an excellent hour-long TV special that's been padded out to feature length. In fact, the video editions of the movie contain just such a piece created simultaneously by the same filmmakers, one which covers most of the same ground but told from the perspective of the human researchers. To be honest, I found that one a little more compelling, if less cinematic. Even so, March of the Penguins is an interesting, rewarding journey that deserves a look.
The HD DVD:
March of the Penguins debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Warner Home Video. A comparable Blu-ray edition is also available. Both releases contain only the American theatrical version of the film with voiceover narration from Morgan Freeman. The original French soundtrack has not been included.
The disc's interactive menus are accompanied by annoying clicking sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it).
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The March of the Penguins HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie's theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio has been slightly opened up to fill a 16:9 frame with negligible impact to the composition.
With content like this, it's important to keep our expectations in check. This is a nature documentary shot on 16mm film under harsh weather conditions, largely using telephoto lenses. The photography is grainy throughout, sometimes extremely so, and has a generally soft and flat appearance. The film elements occasionally suffer from faint vertical ripples, especially during the opening credits, and all of the underwater footage was shot on low-res video with visible pixelation and scan line artifacts.
With all of that in perspective, the imagery in the film is often quite striking. The HD DVD exposes the beautiful detail in the birds' feathers, and the film grain is well compressed to retain its natural, organic textures. Unfortunately problematic, however, is the recurring appearance of edge ringing, which often stands out when the dark penguin bodies are contrasted against the bright snowy landscape.
The disc looks good for what it is, and is undoubtedly an improvement over the Standard-Def DVD edition, but probably shouldn't be used as a home theater demo piece.
The March of the Penguins HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's English language soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. This isn't a showy sound mix, nor would many expect it to be. The musical score has a nice swell and Morgan Freeman's voiceover narration comes across very cleanly. Surround activity is used only in rare bursts, and the track has little bass. Nature sounds such as the calls of the birds are limited in fidelity by the conditions under which they were recorded (the roaring wind often causes distortion). For a documentary, this soundtrack is perfectly suitable.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - Spanish DD+ 5.1.
The disc does not contain the original French language soundtrack.
All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition. All of the supplements from the DVD have carried over.
- Of Penguins and Men (54 min., SD) – This TV special tells much of the same story as found in the movie, but with more direct interaction from the researchers and filmmakers. In format, it's rather standard cable TV fare, but is well made. Though less cinematic, I actually found it more insightful and certainly more concise than the feature.
- National Geographic's Crittercam: Emperor Penguins (24 min., SD) – A silly, made-for-kids TV special with a grating tone that bounces around between cutesy penguin hijinks and grisly hunting footage with no warning. The piece tries to hammer home a message about the dangers of global warming, to the point where literally every problem in a penguin's life is blamed on it. A seal eats a penguin – that's global warming's fault. A penguin drops its egg – global warming caused that too. Also annoying is that the host repeatedly states that the "crittercam" is essential to learning how penguins hunt fish (as if zoos the world over didn't already have plenty of data on that) and will teach us important lessons about environmental change. How those two thoughts are supposedly connected is never established.
- 8 Ball Bunny (7 min., HD) – This classic Looney Tunes short finds Bugs Bunny regretting a promise made to a cute-as-a-button penguin. Humphrey Bogart makes several improbable appearances. The short has been restored to beautiful High Definition quality, though some of the colors look off (the ocean is awfully green) and the mono sound is expectedly tinny.
- Theatrical Trailer (2 min., SD).
March of the Penguins is a fascinating nature documentary about an unexpectedly engrossing subject. The HD DVD has pretty good picture and sound, considering the conditions under which the film was made, and a very good hour-long follow-up documentary in the bonus materials. Recommended.
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