Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Sanitized March of the Penguins

Wonderful film gives Hollywood the bird
July 26, 2005

They are so cute, they are so brave, they are so edible—While most movies are playing to empty seats and Hollywood is tearing its hair out trying to figure out why attendance is down is down (or at least receipts are), crowds or flocking to see, of all things, a French documentary about penguins, “The March of the Penguins.” Who knew? The film, beautifully photographed under unbelievable conditions, shows the life cycle of emperor penguins in the Antarctic, probably nature’s most devoted parents. They waddle and slide 70-100 miles to their breeding site, match up monogamously (and serially), and produce one egg. Then, while the father tends to the egg in the warm area between its feet and body against the Antarctic winter, the mother returns to the sea to feed. Then she shleps back to feed the young (those that survived) while the father makes the trip, and they trade places. They huddle in dense masses against the wind and cold and survive where nothing else could.

I once met one, just outside of McMurdo Station. I had gone for a walk outside the station and up came an emperor penguin to greet me. I stood still while the penguin checked me out, walking around me, scanning and clucking. Curiosity satisfied, it walked off, without a further word. Memory is strange. I seem to remember him (or her) being a lot bigger than the penguins in the film. I loved the experience dearly.

But the film has flaws. It glosses over the truth in a way Walt Disney would savor. There is one sequence in which a skua comes to the rookery and clumsily manages to get one penguin chick. In fact, the skua know when the penguins are hatching and come in deadly waves. They are not clumsy, they are efficient predators and lots of mother penguins return from their trek to find their chicks gone. (In one astonishing sequence, a mother who has lost her chick tries to steal another mother’s chick and the flock comes to the rescue to pull her away.) I was attacked by a skua there once when I probably got to close to her nest. I made a strategic advance to the rear.

Moreover, in another scene, the penguins going for food make it to the sea and there is a sequence in which a single leopard seal catches one. In fact, the seals also are tuned into this life cycle and swim waiting in bunches for lunch to arrive. They will even chase penguins out onto the ice to get them and the result is a bloody mess.

But not in the film.

But go see it anyhow, particularly if you have kids, who will just love it. And the people who made the movie deserve all the ticket sales they can muster. They risked their lives to make the film and did a most excellent job. Instead of the junk you usually see in theaters, they have produced 80 minutes of sheer pleasure and intelligence. The sight of the penguins underwater will make you gasp.

Which brings us to Hollywood’s problems. It has nothing to do with DVD sales or pirating, guys. How about charging $8-10 a ticket, subjecting the audience to 10 minutes of commercials, and then having them sit through mindless comic-book movies designed for 12-year-old boys with ADD? How about $3.50 for 2 cents worth of popcorn? Think that might effect your business? But what do I know.

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