LOS ANGELES — March of the Penguins proves the axiom about survival of the cutest. And fittest, too. The emperor penguins featured in this new documentary have seen fit to devise the most arduous and complicated mating process in the animal kingdom, and it's captured in this film. They're also, by the way, adorable as they undertake their task.
Although birds, penguins can't fly. But they are strong and graceful swimmers and deep-sea divers. They live in the frozen confines of Antarctica yet are warm-blooded and able to regulate their body temperature.
"In the water, this creature is magnificent," says Luc Jacquet, the film's French director. (Although a French production, March of the Penguins has English-language narration by Morgan Freeman.) "It can go to great depth, totally swift, with incredible mobility.
But then at a certain point, they are forced to get out of the water and walk on ice in funny feet and can only make a small distance at any time. It's almost like a Greek tragedy, where they have this gift of water and at some point God said, 'You screwed up, so you have to walk on land now with these funny feet.' "
Although he speaks some English, Jacquet uses a translator to help with answers during this interview, which takes place at his publicist's upper-floor office in a building with a view overlooking Los Angeles on a sunny — and most un-penguinlike — day.
He's good-humored, especially about penguins, which he warns are way too stubbornly troublesome to make good pets, no matter how sweet they look in his film.
In winter, when the weather is at its life-threateningly fiercest, the penguins move from sea to land and march to reach a remote mating ground. It is protected — by Antarctic standards — from the icy sea and the worst of the howling winds. There, in a nine-month ritual more complicated than Einstein's theory of relativity, they reproduce.
The marching is where the "cutest" part comes in. Because penguins aren't good walkers, they tentatively waddle upright across snow and ice, single-file, occasionally belly-flopping and sliding to rest their web feet. From a distance, it looks positively lovable, like toddlers stumbling around a very expansive backyard. Adding to the anthropomorphism, their black-and-white coloration is reminiscent of a tuxedo — you expect them to break into a Cole Porter song.
The reality is they walk that way to try to stay alive.
"If they're marching single file and somebody falls into a crevasse, the rest are going to be saved because they'll see that," Jacquet says.
Once mates are chosen, the coupling occurs with the awkward, roly-poly grace of dancing bowling pins. Next, the females lay eggs and then delicately pass them by foot to their male mates. Exhausted and hungry, the females then march off to sea to find and store up food. The males incubate the eggs for months atop their feet until they hatch.
To conserve warmth as temperatures hit 70 degrees below zero, the egg-bearing males form huge group huddles to keep warm. And they take turns moving from the center to the outskirts.
The females return for the subsequent feeding of the hatched newborn. (The couples recognize each other by mentally "recording" their individual cries and singing.) Eventually the starving males march off to sea for food and then come back, too. It's a process that doesn't end until the newborns are old enough to be able to make it to the sea and swim off on their own.
The 37-year-old filmmaker, who grew up in the snowy mountains of eastern France and studied biology to become a scientist, had been visiting Antarctica for the past 10 years. Earlier he spent 14 months at a French scientific center, Dumont d'Urville, located near a colony of emperor penguins.
"It's sometimes difficult to know why you're drawn to something," he explains. "I'm drawn to immense spaces because it's very beautiful and because it's so incredibly difficult and inhospitable. Somehow it moves me. I'd almost say it's like my personal garden. It draws me because there are stories to be told there."
For his film, Jacquet supervised cinematographers Laurent Chalet and Jerome Maison, who spent 13 months following the penguins. The filmmakers had to learn how to come as close as possible without being intrusive.
Jacquet acknowledges the emperor penguin's life is incomprehensibly difficult to humans. Yet the qualities that allow these birds to survive the reproduction process — especially the males' group huddles to conserve warmth — are inspiring and admirable.
"This particular species has one choice only — to have solidarity, to trust one another and to count on one another," Jacquet says. "If they didn't do that, they wouldn't have fuel to last all winter. They would die if (they) didn't help each other in this way where they exchange heat." ©