Sunday, August 21, 2005

FILM: March of the Penguins

Last night we saw March of the Penguins, a documentary about the Emperor penguin. The film provides an informative documentary about the life of these extraordinary creatures, told in a kind of story form, following their life through the course of a yearlong mating cycle. What these penguins go through to perpetuate themselves is simply amazing, and even inspiring. The film does a great job of presenting the extreme environment they inhabit, and the obstacles the penguins surmount in order to produce and raise their young. The film also has no qualms about humanizing the penguins, which is not difficult given some of their behavior traits. The penguins choose a mate each year, and remain monogamous for that year. Their courtship is cute, and there are some very sweet shots of penguin couples nuzzling. The successful raising of a penguin chick requires an elaborate ritual of great hardship and sacrifice by the parents, as well as the cooperation of the penguin "community", and there are a number of critical points where things can go wrong. It is adorable to see the footage of tiny penguin chicks being born, taking their first steps, and growing up. It is inspirational to see the sacrifice and cooperation of the parents to raise their chick (going to extraordinary lengths to bring it food), and the cooperation of the colony (such as huddling together to survive the worst storms, letting everyone have a turn in the center of the huddle). And it is very moving to see the expressions of anguish when a parent loses its chick to the elements.

It may be inaccurate to attribute emotions to animals, but some of their expressions seem incredibly emotional (and the editing and narration consciously foster an anthropomorphic viewpoint). While it may be unscientific to project human emotions onto animals, I see nothing wrong in anthropomorphizing certain animal behavior where it seems to provide an admirable example of desirable human characteristics, such as family bonding, self-sacrifice, and community cooperation. While animal behavior per se is no basis for human morality, if watching penguins can inspire us to be better humans, I think that's all good. This may suggest that these are good attributes for facing hardship, and (the other side of the same coin) that hardship fosters these attributes.

The film is an unusual moviehouse offering. While I've adored penguins as long as I can remember, George was less enthusiastic about spending a Saturday night seeing a documentary. ("Why go to the theater when we can get that sort of thing staying home and watching the National Geographic channel?") Nonetheless, we'd heard positive reviews from a number of friends who had seen it. I think it may be the humanizing viewpoint that sets this apart from your ordinary documentary, and makes it so appealing. The story-like narration, read by Morgan Freeman, added to that. Not to mention, imagining what the filmmakers had to go through in order to obtain the footage that they did adds to the appreciation of the extraordinary quality of this film. The stars are the penguins themselves, with Mother Nature getting credit for the set design, as many shots showcased the stark beauty of the Antarctic.

The amazing creatures presented in this film may provide interesting fodder for contemplating the evolution versus "intelligent design" debate. What these penguins go through to perpetuate themselves is nothing short of incredible, and the whole cycle is incredibly fragile. That's certainly something one could point to and ask "how could something like that possibly have arisen out of random mutation?" On the other hand, one would certainly wonder how and why an "intelligent designer" would have designed such a precarious and improbable life form, whose hardships seem almost cruel if intentionally designed. The fragility of their life pattern also makes me worry whether and how they will survive global warming. In any event, this film should delight you, might leave you thinking, and may even inspire you.

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