March of the Penguins and Deep Blue (review)

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Water, Water Everywhere

As a species, birds are pretty amusing, and penguins, with their hobbled, flightless birdiness, are the most hilarious birds of all. And adorable, of course, too, with the waddling and the little tuxedos and all. That’s why March of the Penguins is the biggest hit of the summer: because people like seeing cute, funny animals. Or that’s how it started, at least. Cuz what’s happening, I suspect, is that folks are popping in expecting just to see some cute, funny animals and discovering that there’s all sorts of nobility and honor and tenderness and love to these odd birds, these emperor penguins — that they have a story, as a species, that’s weirder and more wonderful than you could ever have imagined.
March of the Penguins is a love story, and, “like most love stories, it begins with an act of foolishness,” narrator Morgan Freeman (War of the Worlds, Batman Begins) informs us as the film opens. (Other voices narrate versions of the film playing around the world, but it’s hard to imagine anyone better combining warmth and authority into a fatherly genuineness than Freeman does.) Freeman is referring to the penguins’ foolishness, but he might well be speaking of filmmaker Luc Jacquet, who, in a feat of either cinematic daring or utter lunacy, spent more than a year in Antarctica to capture the great circle of life as experienced by emperor penguins. His insane and probably life-threatening efforts ended up being well worth it, because the resulting film is one of the greatest nature documentaries every made, one that makes you shake your head in awe of nature’s desultory stubbornness, as if the universe were saying, Damn! 100 below zero? 80 mile-an-hour winds? No food in sight? Sounds like a great place to plop down some fat, flightless, waddlers!

It is an astonishing, Rube Goldberg-esque circle of life these penguins are saddled with, one that requires the penguin mommies to make not one, not two, but three 70-mile marches each year between the barren, icebound emperor breeding grounds and the open sea, where the food is. It’s a circle that demands that these apparently clumsy creatures pass unhatched eggs back and forth on their feet, because even brief moments without the protection of nice, warm, blubberous folds of penguin skin will freeze the little baby inside. It’s a circle that demands that mom and dad penguins find each other, in a crowd of thousands, at the end of long separations purely by the sounds of their voices.

There’s an absurd and inspiring magic to the rhythm of their lives, to their tenacious clinging to the hope of a new generation. And there is unmistakable love and pain in the penguins parents’ successes and failures — the tenderness of penguin couples with each other, their cries of anguish when ice and cold claim an egg… You never want to overly anthropomorphize animal behavior, but I think we often go too far in the other direction, too, denying the obvious evidence of our own eyes: animals feel things too. Maybe not exactly like we do, maybe not with the same understanding that we might bring to our own emotions, but they feel deeply and keenly nevertheless.

And the evidence of that is right before us in March of the Penguins, which succeeds majestically itself in a way that few nature documentaries ever do: we identify with these bizarre birds, who turn out not to be so bizarre after all.

Tidal forces
One hardly knows where to begin ooh-ing and aah-ing over Deep Blue, the extraordinarily lush and fantastically adventurous underwater documentary from Andy Byatt and Alastair Fothergill that has been almost forgotten in all the to-do over March of the Penguins. The scope here is much wider, global in scale, ranging all over the vast, watery realms that make up most of our planet and yet remain in many ways a great mystery — we know more about the surface of Mars, apparently, than we do about the ocean floors. “More men have been into space,” narrator Pierce Brosnan (After the Sunset, Laws of Attraction) informs us, than have traveled to the alien depths.

From funny, clumsy, adorable baby creatures to nature at its most desperate and most vicious, Deep Blue is a symphony of the sea: the pastoral movement visits beautiful coral reefs; an upbeat, nimble movement features a carpet of crabs wriggling hilariously on a beach; a movement in a minor key takes us to an underwater world of moonlight and dark shadows. Some of the most awe-inspiring nature footage I’ve ever seen is here: an orca toying with a baby sea lion, playing with its food in a riveting sequence; a “feeding frenzy” of dolphins and sharks, albatross and seals, and then an enormous whale attacking a school of sardines; a starving polar bear attempting to attack beluga whales through a hole in the ice.

Deep Blue made me feel like I’d come face to face with hidden provinces of the richness of life on earth. The reminder of what it takes for most of the planet to feed itself made me glad my meat comes in styrofoam and plastic wrap at the store, and that I’m not meat for anyone else. But the exotic magnificence of much of who we share the planet with made me wonder, too, how come I wasn’t born a transparent and deadly jellyfish?

March of the Penguins
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated G
official site | IMDB

Deep Blue
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated G
official site | IMDB

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