Thursday, December 08, 2005

Review: March of the Penguins

When the penguins go marching in...

If further evidence that documentaries have become serious box-office business, then the 'blockbuster' icebound penguin saga March of the Penguins should provide it. Directed by French biologist Luc Jacquet, the film has grossed US$70 million in the United States alone and arrives in the UK just in time for the Christmas schmaltzy season.

The film was shot over a period of 14 months and was produced by a pool of organisations that includes by Canal +, Buena Vista, Bonne Pioche and the French Polar Institute. It became a resounding a success when it first opened in France and in America it was appropriated by pro-life groups, which saw in it an example of monogamy and family values that fit in perfectly with the Bush-influenced conservative ethos in the Western world.

Despite technically being a nature documentary, March of the Penguins really is a film about human feelings projected on animals, a Disney-style exercise in anthropomorphisation of unwitting creatures. The 'storyline' should be familiar to most by now. Every winter, emperor Penguins in Antarctica leave behind the safety of the blue waters where they inhabit to set out on a 100km journey to one of the most inhospitable regions in the world in order to mate. The penguins march in a straight line against a blast of icy wind, driven by their instinct to reproduce, with unshakeable determination.

The film is designed to pull at the heart strings, with the help of the voice-over that gives human character to the 'protagonist' family of penguins that lead the emotional narrative. There’s nothing too unusual in that and we probably have seen this sort of approach in Saturday morning animal-world documentaries. But March of the Penguins is an ideologically and aesthetically contaminated film that uses typified nature to unabashedly glorify the human spirit. Yes, there are hints that there is violence in nature but this is glossed over by Jacquet in favour of a more ‘positive' outlook.

The irony is that March of the Penguins is set amidst the continent which has become the focal point of the global warming crisis and it would have been much more useful to highlight that this march may not happen for much longer because of the human destruction of the planet. But instead what we get is a narcissistic manipulation of the natural world in the service of 'values'. Shouldn't nature films attempt to divert our attention from ourselves as human animals so that we contemplate nature more closely and be moved to preserve it? By turning animals into metaphors of the human experience, March of the Penguins sadly reinforces the anthropocentric view of the world that is the main cause of the ecological disaster we are heading towards and therefore betrays the basic role of nature films as a call to preservation.

March of the Penguins is out 9/12

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