I have to admit to approaching this review of 'March of the Penguins' with a certain sense of dread. Despite all the acclaim, the big box office and that Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, I thought it was going to be another cheesy, dry nature documentary. The kind narrated by some big famous actor, filled with gorgeous if boring location photography, and some faux-inspiration story about birds mating or something. No thanks, I figured -- I'd rather just go watch an old episode of "Chilly Willy" instead.
And as it turns out, on a pure surface level, 'March of the Penguins' is a certain amount of all of the above. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, it tells the story of a group of Emperor Penguins who take an annual 70-mile trek just to mate. The destination is always the same, yet the adventure for each individual penguin can be very, very different. Many perils await the penguins, from shifting ice flows to scarce food sources, not to mention the birds' own bodies. With only their trusty beaks, their short stubby legs, and a pair of fins to guide them, it is enough to make any human who has braved the singles bars scene feel grateful. If we had to go through as much as these penguins do just to mate, our species would almost certainly die out.
Yet there is far more to 'March of the Penguins' than wobbling birds with amorous intentions. The journey doesn't end once they reach the party. Though finding a mate is usually quick (often within a week), they must now do the deed, hatch an egg, and spend the next eight months nurturing new life. In a fascinating reversal on human child rearing, it is the male that stays behind with the egg, while the mother completes the 70-mile hike all over again to obtain nourishment. It's an incredible feat, and one not without its tragedies. Not all of the eggs will make it, and the results can be heartbreaking.
The dilemma that faced 'March of the Penguins' was whether it could surmount the label of "nature documentary" to emerge as a living, breathing motion picture -- one that tells a genuine, legitimate story. Triumphantly, it does. Sure, you can see a myriad of penguin specials on PBS or the Discovery Channel, but none are this compelling and delightful. Everything about 'March of the Penguins' is superior -- the cinematography is breathtaking, the score by Alex Wurman is soaring and beautiful, and Freeman's narration is never less than stately. All of the elements balance each other perfectly, and the pace never lags. There are even moments of palpable suspense and endearing comedy, such as the moment when two female penguins try to dive at once through the same small hole in the ice. It's like watching Lucy and Ethel in an old "I Love Lucy" episode, only dressed as penguins.
Perhaps the real reason for the breakout success of 'March of the Penguins' is that tells a decidedly non-human story in terms humans can innately understand and appreciate. The film does not condescend to the animal world, nor does it attempt to bastardize the customs and behaviors of the penguins. 'March of the Penguins' is the rare nature film that allows us to appreciate and honor the animals we share our world with, but free of political theatrics and heavy-handed moralizing. It simply documents a marvelous, fascinating journey, and allows us to see the universal struggle every creature on this planet faces, no matter how many fingers we have on our fins. In short, 'March of the Penguins' is truly a magical movie.
Warner presents 'March of the Penguins' on HD DVD and Blu-ray with identical 1080p/VC-1 encodes. The film has been recomposed slightly from its projected 1.85:1 aspect ratio, shown here in an opened-up 1.78:1 re-matted transfer. Aspect ratio aside, it's a solid presentation considering the source material, and alongside 'Happy Feet' (which I gave a perfect 5-star rating for video), it shows that high-def just loves penguins.
Even for a top-notch nature documentary, 'March of the Penguins' is extraordinarily photographed. Shot on film (not HD video), grain is quite visible (particularly in the opening passages) but the source is pristine as far as major blemishes go. Close-ups in particular shine, with a very clean, defined picture that reveals the finest textures of our penguin friends. Blacks appear to be even darker than natural, to help boost contrast. While not absolutely natural, the effect works for the most part, which delivers a good amount of pop for a documentary. Colors can be rich, especially the cool blue cast to the arctic locations and the brilliant yellow/orange splashes of the penguin trunks. Overall, a very excellent picture considering the difficult source material.
Warner also offers up identical Dolby Digital 5.1 surround encodes (at 640kpbs) on the HD DVD and Blu-ray (designated as Dolby Digital-Plus on the former). Aurally speaking, the documentary is limited in scope, with only dialogue, music and natural ambiance to work with.
Surrounds are pretty much limited to wind noises and other location sounds. The score by Alex Wurman nicely fills up the front soundstage, with a bit of rear reinforcement to add impact. Morgan Freeman's classy narration is rock solid in the center channel, and always clearly recorded and reproduced. The location sound is above-average for a documentary, although it does lack the controled warmness of the score and narration, making it perhaps the weakest part of the mix. No matter -- 'March of the Penguins' still boats a highly effective soundtrack, perfectly suiting the material.
'March of the Penguins' was released on standard-def DVD in late 2005 with only a small number of extras, and this HD DVD release echoes that rather limited package.
Having said that, the centerpiece extra, the 53-minute "Of Penguins and Men" is one heck of a documentary in its own right. It is truly a companion piece to 'March of the Penguins,' only instead of focusing on the birds, it focuses on the men beyond the doc. Director Luc Jacquet and co-writer Jerome Maison set up a research base near the South Pole for a team of thirty scientists to study and film the birds. And while this is no reality TV-like, thrill-a-minute spectacle, the men are so dedicated that their passion is as compelling as it is inexplicable. I personally have no idea how anyone could be so motivated as to spend years freezing their asses off in the arctic to document penguins, but I'm sure glad they did -- and that we have this documentary to honor them.
National Geographic's "Crittercam: Emperor Penguins" runs 23 minutes, and is typical of most nature documentaries. It certainly gives you a renewed appreciation for 'March of the Penguins,' in that it is far more dry and flat -- it takes a lot to make this kind of material exciting, and not merely "educational." Watch this one only if you are truly penguin-obsessed, or can't make it to your local Sea World to see them up-close and personal.
Rounding out the set is a classic Looney Tunes cartoon short from 1949, "8-Ball Bunny," plus the film's Theatrical Trailer. Though the latter fills up the entire 16:9 screen, my read-out only gave me a reading of 480, so it looks like this one is not in true high-def.
'March of the Penguins' is really a lovely little adventure, and one that far outclasses its dreaded "natural documentary" label. It can be as thrilling as any big-budget Hollywood spectacle, and twice as moving. Warner has produced another fine HD DVD release, with strong video and audio, and a slim but compelling set of supplements. This makes a wonderful companion piece to the studio's just-released 'Happy Feet' -- if you can get both as part of a package deal, don't hesitate to pick 'em both up.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.