This summer, a lot of people in quite a few countries saw a modest French-made documentary about penguins. So many, in fact, that the movie, “La Marche de lfempereur,” or “March of the Penguins,” was recently named the second-highest-grossing documentary film ever, after “Fahrenheit 911.” In many cities, it has run longer than big-budget blockbusters featuring celebrity actors.
Its makers probably thought they had crafted a simple nature film — interesting, beautiful, dramatic, but hardly profound. The public, however, didn’t respond simply. Like the blind men who each felt an elephant and “saw” something different in the exotic creature, people have brought their own preconceptions to “March of the Penguins” and seen all manner of human parallels in it. It has become a kind of mirror, showing us who we are now.
Of course, it is not actually about us at all. There isn’t a human being in the entire thing. Set in Antarctica, it depicts the mating cycle of that harsh region’s principal inhabitant: the emperor penguin. As fall approaches, the birds clamber out of the ocean and set off, in a single-file column several kilometers long, on a 112-km march to their breeding grounds. Once there, they pair off for the season, mate and produce eggs.
But the marching has only just begun. The mothers transfer their eggs to the safety of the fathers’ feet then trek back to the ocean to forage for food throughout the winter months. The fathers stay at the breeding grounds protecting the eggs amid howling blizzards and near-total darkness. With nothing to eat for weeks on end, they huddle together against the knifelike winds.
The eggs hatch. Then comes more marching: The mothers waddle back and somehow pick out their half-starved mates and offspring from the crowd — those that have survived. Finally, after one last grueling march back to the sea, toddlers and all, the penguins have a relatively idyllic summer to look forward to. At least they would if it weren’t for the leopard seals lurking in the water.
The one plain fact to emerge from this stunning documentary is that emperor penguins have it very, very tough. If this is evolution at work — the birds march so far to breed because they have “learned” that the ice shelf melts closer to the sea, putting their precious eggs in jeopardy — then evolution has some serious downsides. It’s effective, perhaps, but hardly efficient. Scientifically speaking, that is about it.
To be fair to those who saw more in the movie than science, however, its makers obviously wanted to tell a supra-scientific story, and to that end added poetic voice-overs, a plangent musical score and sometimes shameless manipulation of images. At one point, for example, a male and a female penguin bow and touch, their joined heads forming a perfect heart. As many reviewers have noted, it is almost impossible for moviegoers not to anthropomorphize the penguins, since the movie itself attributes to the birds such human emotions as sadness, devotion and, yes, even romantic love. It also has many moments that seem very funny — to us humans. To the penguins, their ungainliness on land just makes life harder, not cuter.
Still, it was probably inevitable that a movie about penguins would come across as cute, even though no one can explain why a baby penguin seems intrinsically cuter than, say, a baby snake. It just does. The compulsion to romanticize survival-driven mating rituals is not really so surprising, either. Despite, or perhaps because of, soaring divorce rates, we moderns are almost comically vulnerable to tales of lasting love. Who cares if the emperor penguins pragmatically pair off for just one season?
But the anthropomorphizing didn’t stop there. Also jumping on the penguin bandwagon were spokespeople for groups praising the movie as a paean to family values and intelligent design (those who saw evidence of the latter were clearly not emperor penguins). One film critic was quoted in the New York Times as saying that “March of the Penguins” “passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing.” Another detected an argument against homosexuality. And then there was the set of critics who painted the movie as primarily a reality check for us bubble-head humans. One defined today’s moviegoers as an audience for whom “the very term [reality] has become warped beyond recognition by reality television.”
It all seems a heavy load to pile on to an innocent nature film, even one that succumbs to the temptation to romanticize. In truth, it’s just a film about birds. Yet as surely as the penguins will keep making their annual icy trek, we humans will keep projecting onto the natural world our own prejudices and predilections. No wonder we only see ourselves looking back.
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