French cinematographers spent a full year in Antarctica filming the life cycle of the emperor penguin for La Marche de l’Empereur, or March of the Penguins. Emperor penguins lead remarkable, complex lives marked by apparent touches of compassion, fidelity and stoicism in the face of hardship (it may seem thus because of their fixed facial expressions) that gives their story particular popular appeal. Happy Feet depicted a little of the habits of these birds, but while watching it I was constantly wishing for the unvarnished realism of this documentary feature.
Emperor penguins breed at the same place each year, a location that is over 100 kilometres from the sea by the beginning of winter (in summer the ice recedes). The eggs are incubated by the males, who rest the eggs on top of their feet, while the females return to the ocean to feed. There is little that is easy about being an emperor penguin: extended periods without food for both sexes, the males huddle together for warmth during the long, dark, cold Antarctic winter, and the females’ make long journeys to the ocean in search of sustenance.
When the female penguins return, they recognise their mate by their call, and for the remainder of the summer the parents shuttle back and forth to the sea in order to fish. The chicks are threatened by starvation and predators, and if one of their parents die their odds of survival are slim, but the persistence of these birds in the face of incredible hardships is remarkable.
I watched the film in its original French, with subtitles. While the sound of the language is beautiful, the dialogue may seem a little strange – it’s narrated in the first person by a male and female voice actor, with a child for the chick’s voice. The music is atmospheric and quite beautiful. The American release uses a more conventional third person narrative by Morgan Freeman. I’d suggest that whichever version you choose, you watch the extra material on the DVD about the filming of the documentary. The penguins endured months of darkness and howling wind as they incubated their eggs, and the film makers did likewise (minus the eggs)!