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MARCH OF THE PENGUINS
Limited Edition Giftset

Review by Ed Nguyen

Narration: Morgan Freeman
Director: Luc Jacquet
Audio: English and Spanish Dolby Digital Surround 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 80 minutes
Release Date: November 3, 2009

"What the -- ?  It's a boy, a boy in a tuxedo!" - Bugs Bunny

Film *** ½

March of the Penguins is a National Geographic release about...penguins, of course!  Specifically, this documentary examines the migration and mating patterns of Aptenodytes forsteri, more commonly known as the emperor penguin.

Averaging sixty-six pounds as an adult, the aptly-named emperor penguin is the largest of all penguins.  With a strange predilection for one of the harshest climates on Earth, this aquatic bird seems perfectly content to brave temperatures far, far below zero during a typical mating season.  March of the Penguins unfolds during one such mating season.  Starting in March and continuing until December of the same year, this documentary looks not only at the trek the penguins must travel to reach their secluded Antarctic breeding grounds but more significantly at the intense conditions which they must endure into order to ensure the survival of their newborn.

The journey inland to the breeding grounds may take up to seventy miles.  Yes, seventy miles.  In sub-zero weather.  On awkward little feet better suited for swimming than for walking on slippery ice.  When too tired to walk, the penguins simply flop upon their bellies and toboggan themselves along.  This is a journey the penguins must repeat many times over during a season, not only to feed themselves but also to gather food for the eventual hatchling chicks until they are old enough to fend for themselves.  Such an epic test of endurance and parental instinct is surely unsurpassed in the annals of the animal kingdom.

One of the most awe-inspiring scenes opening this documentary is the arrival of row upon row of emperor penguins reaching their breeding grounds.  The monumental sight of these magnificent birds amassing is simply breathtaking, akin to the spectacle of the Klondike climbers at the start of The Gold Rush or the mountain climbers of Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

Eventually, thousands will arrive, with the courtship rituals beginning soon thereafter.  When paired, emperor penguins remain faithful until the next mating season, their entire focus becoming the preservation of their egg and the miraculous life developing inside.  The egg itself is highly vulnerable to freezing, so it must be incubated and insulated for two months by the father (during this time, the mother returns to sea to feed).  The arriving young hatchlings are also easy prey for opportunistic predators, like giant petrels which will descend upon any chick unfortunate enough to stray too far from a parent's protection.

The mother penguin may be gone for up to two months.  When she returns, she will be able to feed the newborn chick while the father is allowed to end his own months-long starvation.  Of course, the famished male penguins must still navigate over miles of sheer ice in sub-zero weather after a four-month fast.  Even upon reaching the sea edge, danger (in the guise of hungry leopard seals) still awaits these starved emperor penguins.  Nevertheless, this cycle must repeat itself many times, with parents alternating feeding trips and care for the chick.

Emperor penguins subsist on a diet of mostly crustaceans, small fish, krill, and occasionally squid.  They are superb swimmers, frequently diving down to over 1700 feet to catch their prey.  An adult penguin is capable of holding its breath around fifteen minutes on average.  However, the chicks will not take their first swim until they are around five months old and must instead rely entirely upon the regurgitated contents of their parents' stomachs.  Should either parent perish at any time during these dangerous winter months, then the chick is surely doomed to starvation.  One parent alone cannot provide enough nourishment from the sea for the chick to grow and maintain its body heat against the unrelentingly intense winter cold.

The extreme hardness suffered by these enduring penguins simply begs the question - when temperatures dropped to 80 degrees below with winds up to 100 miles an hour, what was keeping the documentary filmmakers themselves alive?  Well, the filmmakers were able to rely upon a local research base for shelter and food.  Despite this, they nearly perished anyways in a moment of carelessness (documented in Of Penguins and Men), further emphasizing the fragility of life in the Antarctic regions against the incredible prosperity of the emperor penguins.

For their own pains and near-death experiences, the filmmakers were able to deliver some truly spectacular footage.  Any National Geographic production can be counted upon for beautiful photography and awe-inspiring landscapes, and March of the Penguins is no exception.  Like 2001's Winged Migration, which offered wondrous images from all over the globe, March of the Penguins unveils the enduring majesty and beauty of these birds, which thrive in some of the world's most remote and harsh climates. 

While Winged Migration encompassed many species of birds, March of the Penguins focuses primarily upon the natural habitats of the emperor penguin.  Narrated by Morgan Freeman and filled with many delightful and humorous moments, March of the Penguins makes an ideal family film.  We see how these aquatic birds travel through thousands of miles of ocean to mingle upon the unforgiving Antarctic sub-continent in essentially a vast communal hug.  Even more fantastic is the underwater footage, otherworldly and absolutely mesmerizing.  The grace, agility, and speed of these penguins underwater is startling, and the images captured here literally rival anything Hollywood can conjure up via computer special effects.

Perhaps the best feature of all, however, is the simple sight of the penguin chicks themselves.  They are, in a word, adorable.  Only the coldest, most worthless lump of humanity could fail to be moved by these absolutely charming and cuddly baby penguins.  The camera sensibly lingers over them for many scenes, and rightly so.  After all, these penguin chicks are the entire reason why the emperor penguins annually and voluntarily suffer through such an epic struggle against the harshest trials of Mother Nature.  That these chicks can survive such extreme conditions is a miracle in itself, and seeing the young hatchlings emerge and mature into healthy and vibrant young emperor penguins is the highlight of this documentary.

True parental love knows no bounds.  March of the Penguins is magical and wondrous, a perfect viewing experience for the entire family.  Who knows, maybe children and parents alike may learn something new while enjoying this heart-warming tale about the bonds and sacrifices made by these parents that their offspring might survive.

Video *** ½

March of the Penguins is bright with sharp images, although the transfer has occasional mild pixelation.  Some graininess in the darker sequences can be forgiven (keep in mind that Antarctica is shrouded in darkness for much of the winter).  Underwater footage is also somewhat grainy but again acceptable, given the conditions and especially considering that the camera equipment could even survive such frigid conditions to capture any images!

Audio ****

Too bad the original French audio soundtrack is not included on this disc.  The documentary was narrated in French through the point of view of a mother, father, and baby penguin!  Purportedly, the French audio was rather cheesy, but it still would have been interesting to have for comparison with Morgan Freeman's English narration.

Freeman's scripted comments are simplistic and sometimes too elementary, detracting from the powerful images.  Nevertheless, they do impart some of the epic scope of the penguins' struggle against and triumph over the elements.  A Spanish narration is also provided.

Narration and storyline aside, the recorded sounds provide a very natural and sonically rich ambiance to the film.  We hear the echoing cries of many penguins, the splintering groans of the ice floes, and the shrieks of hungry and ever-vigilant petrels soaring on high.  This is as close as most people can get to experiencing this sort of extreme world setting, aside from actually going to Antarctica.

Features *** ½

March of the Penguins was a G-rated film with no violence or special effects, a family-friendly documentary (of all things), and a total smash hit at the box office, where it made a gazillion bucks.  Hollywood producers, are you paying attention?  The silent majority is trying to tell you something here.

Trailers for Happy Feet (a CG film about penguins), The Polar Express, National Geographic's Animal Holiday (a holiday sing-along), and Duma (about a cheetah baby) open the DVD at start-up.

Next is Of Penguins and Men (54 min.), a documentary about the making of March of the Penguins.  It recounts the sheer madness and inspiration of two cinematographers, Laurent Chalet and Jérôme Maison, as they brave the terrible polar winters to capture the breathtaking images seen in March of the Penguins.  Narration in English is provided by Maison, who describes the travel to the polar region and the thirteen-month stay at an Antarctic French research lab, which served as the base of operations for the two cinematographers.  Even so, the two men narrowly escaped death at least once in a severe Antarctic snowstorm, which puts the remarkable survival of the emperors penguins themselves into greater perspective.

National Geographic's Crittercam: Emperor Penguins (23 min.) makes use of the crittercam, a device that is attached to animals' backs to allow researchers to track their movements visually.  While the camera has been used with the likes of dolphins and whales, the emperor penguin is easily the smallest marine critter to wear such a contraption. Watching the penguin attempting to walk with an attached crittercam is a goofy riot, but once in the water, the penguins are as agile as ever.

As a fun note, the classic 1950 Merry Melodies cartoon 8 Ball Bunny, featuring Bugs Bunny, is included.  Naturally, there is a penguin involved.  In a nutshell, Bugs Bunny decides to help a lost little penguin make his way back home, presumably the southern polar regions.  The cartoon's running joke is a poke at the Humphrey Bogart character from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, made only two years prior to this cartoon (and therefore fresh on the minds of then-audiences).  The disc rounds out with a trailer.

This limited edition gift set also includes a second DVD, with the new documentary On the Wings of Penguins.  If you only thought about ice and snow when you thought about penguins, you'll think again when you see this charming look at Africa's warm-weather penguins!  The set also includes an adorable little plush penguin toy and 8 collectable postcards, all handsomely packaged in a nice box that's perfect for the holidays!

Summary:

March of the Penguins offers everything National Geographic documentaries are famous for - spectacular scenery, exotic wildlife, and otherworldly environs.  This double disc limited edition gift set, which also explores the penguins who don't live in the cold, is certain to be fun for the entire family.

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