The nature documentary has little basis in reality.
By CHRISTOPHER KELLY
FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM
If you're looking for a cute and cuddly appreciation of the cute and cuddly nature documentary "March of the Penguins," stop reading now. I don't do cute and cuddly, at least not when it comes to the most bafflingly overrated movie of the year.
Just about everyone I know is wildly enamored of this French-made portrait of the migration and mating patterns of emperor penguins in the Antarctic; the runaway indie hit of the summer, it's so far grossed nearly $30 million -- and box-office analysts say it could end up making at least twice that.
Me, I sat through the movie rooting for the Arctic winds to blow the penguins right off the screen.
Now before you call and report me to the local PETA chapter, you should know I have nothing against animals in general, or penguins in particular. I'm the owner of a 9-year-old Sheltie; I maintain an open-attic policy for a number of squirrels in my neighborhood. Buried in one of my photo albums, you can even find pictures of me on the shores of Cape Town, South Africa, standing and waving like a fool, surrounded by, yup, penguins.
But "March of the Penguins" represents the nadir of a troubling trend, at least for those of us who don't care to receive moral instruction from a group of oversized birds: It labors to make us see these penguins as fundamentally human. The word for this is "anthropomorphism" -- "the attributing of human shape or characteristics to a god, animal or inanimate thing." It's long been a staple of Disney cartoons and children's films in general, like "The Adventures of Milo and Otis" or "The Bear;" we tend to enjoy our animal stories more if we can place ourselves in the animals, er, shoes.
Except in "March of the Penguins" -- supposedly a serious look at the hard, dreary lives of emperor penguins, who have bucked the rules of Darwinism and survived generations of impossibly deadly winters in Antarctica -- the anthropomorphizing sails far, far over the top. For a nature documentary, this movie has shockingly little connection to reality.
I knew I was in trouble early on, when the narrator, Morgan Freeman, pronounces that this isn't merely the story of a species' survival. "March of the Penguins," insists Freeman, is a "love story." Now it's bad enough when, in a movie like "Madagascar," I'm asked to believe that a zebra and a lion could be best friends -- and that, when the lion gets hungry, he would sooner go vegetarian than bite into his zebra pal. But when a documentary tries to convince me that these inexpressive, tuxedoed creatures can experience complex emotions like love, well, I'm not buying.
Perhaps even more puzzling: "March of the Penguins" makes these penguins seem human not to offer up a metaphor for our own human foibles so much as to give us a little cheap uplift. The movie literally waddles along, observing how the penguins make the long trek from the ocean to their mating ground. Then the female penguins hatch an egg, which gets passed to the male penguins, who stay behind and, um, try to avoid freezing solid. Then the girl penguins trek back to the ocean to get food and then trek all the way back again to feed their newly hatched babies. All of which might be interesting as a Sisyphean study in the utter pointlessness of these birds' brutally difficult lives.
Finding the message
But because existential angst has no place in a G-rated movie, the penguins' journey is instead framed as a portrait of triumph over adversity. In other words, we're supposed to leave the theater thinking, "I should be more like those penguins."
I realize "March of the Penguins" is mostly just intended for the little ones; and I realize, too, that it shows us a part of the world none of us would see otherwise -- which is especially admirable during a summer season where most movies have been cooked up on a computer and feature lots of stuff exploding. I suspect, too, that it's a vast improvement on the original French version, which went so far as to provide human voices for the penguins. The sight and sound of penguins speaking French is more than any of us should ever have to bear.
But what exactly is the message we're sending to the kids in the audience? That the harsh truths of nature -- where the emperor penguins fight to survive, only to have to turn around the next day and repeat the exhausting process again -- can be elided? That even the most miserable reality can be turned into a feel-good fantasy?
If the filmmakers ever want to make a sequel, they should consider "March of the Ostriches." They've got the whole "burying their head in the sand" thing down pat.