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'March of the Penguins': a fine flick about fowl



Published: Sat, August 6, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



"March of the Penguins" is doing what few documentaries have done: It's making money. It's also terrific family entertainment.

"Penguins" has struck a chord with the movie-going public. Last week, USA Today reported that its $16.3 million take had already vaulted it into third place among the highest-grossing documentaries. If you're looking for a G-rated film for children, this is it.

With a running time of one hour and 20 minutes, "Penguins" chronicles a year in the lives of a colony of emperor penguins. French director Luc Jacquet describes the film as a "... very straightforward story of survival. ... I attempted to take the viewer along like a father or mother takes his child on a journey with a bedtime story."

Filmed in Antarctica, the crew endured unimaginable conditions for more than a year. Temperatures approached minus 100 degrees and winds blew up to 100 miles per hour. However, this incredible story of survival focuses on the penguins: They've thrived under these conditions for millennia, and that is the appeal of the film. I defy anyone to watch this movie and not marvel at these incredible birds. That the adult penguins are incredibly photogenic and the young indescribably cute simply adds to its charm. "Penguins" gets two big thumbs up.

A few quibbles

However, I do have some reservations. Scenes of predation of young penguins, though not prolonged or particularly gruesome, left my nephew's young daughter sad and teary-eyed. Young children can be sensitive to scenes of predation. For most though, "Penguins" is actually a gentle introduction to the reality of predator-prey relations.

Also, it would have been instructive if the narrator had identified the large predatory bird that swooped in on the chicks. It was a Southern Giant Petrel, and its diet includes fish, squid and small penguins.

My only criticism of the film was its anthropomorphic tone. Confusion and ignorance result when animals are assigned human attributes. A blurb in the film's press notes reads, "'March of the Penguins' tells one of the most beautiful love stories on earth." No, it doesn't. Those words are intended to appeal to the vast majority of the public who have no biological training. A more honest yet equally effective and compelling promo might have read, "'Penguins' tells one of the planet's most compelling, haunting and beautiful tales of survival, perseverance and renewal."

Woodpecker skepticism

Back in May, I wrote of the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker by a team of ornithologists organized by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I called it "the biggest conservation story of my lifetime." Over the course of a year, a handful of expert birders saw an individual ivory-bill several times in the swamps of Arkansas's Cache River National Refuge.

Last month, news broke that three biologists (Jerry Jackson of Florida Gulf Coast University, Richard Prum of Yale and Mark Robbins of the University of Kansas) were planning to publish a challenge to the conclusion that ivory-bills still exist. They claimed the observational and video evidence was inconclusive. Basically, they were challenging the expertise of the Cornell team.

I was skeptical of the trio's criticism because they had no new evidence of their own. In fact, according to a source at Cornell, none of the three had participated in the year-long search for the Arkansas ivory-bill. Perhaps being left out fueled their skepticism. Jackson in particular, author of "In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker" (2004), had missed a chance to write the ultimate final chapter.

Last week, however, after hearing audio recordings of the ivory-bill's diagnostic call and distinctive double raps on a tree, Prum and Robbins changed their tune. In comments to the New York Times, both admitted they were convinced the ivory-bill lives. Jackson is out of the country and has not yet heard the tapes.

Science is based on repeatable observations, and challenging conclusions is part of the process. However, there should be new information on which to base those challenges. Sour grapes don't qualify.

XSend questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, R.D. 5, Cameron, W.Va. 26033 or via e-mail to sshalaway@aol.com




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