The Emperor Penguin is a remarkable beast. At the beginning of the Antarctic winter, after three months at sea, it walks 70 miles to a centuries-old breeding ground. Once there, the penguins mate, then await the arrival of their sole egg. Once it's laid, the egg is entrusted to the male bird, while the female returns to the water to feed. Two 70 mile trips and many weeks later, the females return and take over caring for the young chick, allowing the males to go to sea and so feed for the first time in months. Such feats are remarkable in and of themselves, but they're all the more extraordinary for taking place on the world's harshest continent at the most inhospitable time of year.
With such incredible subject matter, March Of The Penguins cannot help but hold the attention. It's impossible not to warm to the penguins. As Mary Poppins, Gregory's Girl and The Wrong Trousers have proved, there's something very appealing about these tuxedoed creatures, and you feel for them as they struggle to sustain their species. Even if you're not impressed by the hardiness of the animals, you have to admire Luc Jacquet and his team for braving the extremes of the South Pole to capture this rite of passage.
A French film with a new score and narration for the American market, the documentary is saddled by a script which insists that the animals' every action is inspired by love rather than instinct. Such anthropomorphism is a debasement of everything we've come to love and learn about the animal world since David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau began to broaden our horizons. If directors see fit to take this path, they may as well insert gags about how leopard seals struggle to eat penguins because their flippers make it hard to undo the wrappers, and hire Johnny Morris to throw in a few silly voices.
This said, the American cut of March Of The Penguins is a huge improvement on the original, which set its penguin "dialogues" against an insipid pop soundtrack. In swapping this crass cartoon effect for Disney-esque anthropomorphism, March Of The Penguins' distributors have transformed a brilliantly-made but banal documentary into a superior, if sappy, slice of wildlife filmmaking.