March of the Penguins. Dir. Luc Jacquet. Warner Independent Pictures, Buena Vista International. 2005.

March of the Penguins. Dir. Luc Jacquet. Warner Independent Pictures, Buena Vista International. 2005.

March of the Penguins. Dir. Luc Jacquet. Warner Independent Pictures, Buena Vista International. 2005. 150 150 Natalie Jordan

March of the Penguins is a 2005 Oscar winning documentary directed by Luc Jacquet depicting the annual journey undertaken by Emperor Penguins in the Antarctica, from the sea where they spent their summer months, to their breeding ground, miles away, to which they must waddle through harsh conditions to find a partner with whom to mate and spend an unforgiving winter protecting the egg they produce from the extremes of the climate. The film documents this journey to new life with stunning shots of extreme locations, emotionally resonant moments of penguin life and death, scored by an at times moving classical soundtrack and narrated by the soothing and almost conversational voice of Morgan Freeman. It was a critical and commercial success upon its release, winning an Oscar at the 78th Annual Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature, [1] earning 94% critics’ approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, [2] and grossing over $127 million worldwide. [3]

As a documentary, March of the Penguins has actuality as a focus, attempting to present the penguins’ mating rites in an ostensibly objective and educational manner, seeking to teach the audience about the ways of life of these ordinarily remote and inaccessible (to the human gaze, at least) creatures. However, there are more generic conventions than those attributed to traditional nature documentary filmmaking at work in this film: it is also a quest narrative, with the clear, and as Jennifer K. Ladino argues in ‘For the Love of Nature: Documenting Life, Death, and Animality in Grizzly Man and March of the Penguins, heteronormative goal of procreation, [4] highly lauded by the narration’s insistence on the beauty of such a triumph over a world set against them. The film also makes a point of telling its audience that, above all else, March of the Penguins is a sort of romance, expressly stating the story intended to be told near the film’s beginning, as Freeman says, “In some ways this is a story of survival, a tale of life over death. But it’s more than that, really. This is a story about love. Like most love stories, it begins with an act of utter foolishness.” [5]

In fact, this imposition of a human love story via the narration and sequencing of the film upon raw footage of penguins in their natural habitat is part of a large overarching anthropomorphism in the film that encompasses a great many more instances. Following a sequence of landscape shots that introduce the viewer to the fantastical Antarctic setting, the viewer’s first glimpse of any actual penguins could almost be mistaken for blurrily hunched humans in the distance, wearing black and awkwardly shuffling their way across the horizon (fig. 1). Straight away, the film begins to visually hint at what Freeman will later declare outright in his narration, that the penguins are, “just like us, really.” [6]

Freeman’s narration repeatedly guides the viewer to read human qualities into the penguins’ actions. In the male penguins, the voiceover encourages to identify with but also laugh at stereotypically human male-coded behaviour: “They pout. They bellow. They strut. And, occasionally, they will engage in some contact sports.” [7] It’s amusing to the viewer in a dog-on-its-hind legs kind of way—they are acting like us, but they are not us. “They’re not that different from us, really,” Freeman says amusedly, when in reality without the narration the typical viewer may have no cause to assume they are like us at all, unlikely to be able to differentiate male penguin from female to begin with, never mind be necessarily inclined to independently project their own notions of characteristic human male behaviour onto them. With the narration, the viewer can feel amused with, and heteronormatively validated by, the penguins’ stereotypically gendered behaviour. When the film indulges in comedic moments, therefore, we laugh not only with the narrator, but can feel like we are laughing with and not at the penguins too, identifying with them and that which Freeman tells us about their personalities.

When the humour evoked—instead of directed at gender-coded human behaviour seemingly enacted by penguins—becomes much more slapstick, there still seems to be the sense of human measures of experience guiding the tale and our interpretations. “Theirs is usually a graceful parade,” Freeman declares as the musical score lilts cheerfully behind him and onscreen one penguin slides clumsily into another. “But not always,” he amends. [8] In his review of March of the Penguins, Roger Ebert criticises elements of the narration that are, “a little too fanciful for my taste, and some of the shots seem funny to us but not to the penguins,” [9] and whether or not the mentioned instance is one Ebert had in mind as he wrote this, it certainly fits. As far as the viewer can tell from the footage, the penguins involved in the collision are, at most, fleetingly ruffled, and those surrounding entirely unaffected, quickly clambering on to continue the film’s titular march. Any significance, humorous or otherwise, to this moment is pointed to entirely by the directorial decision to include the moment at all, and the narrator’s chuckling comment.

The viewer is not exactly encouraged to fully identify with the penguins—they are still other than us, even mystical or enigmatic, and capable in their otherwise waddling and inelegant forms of things so far beyond human that humanity has not yet come to understand or find an explanation for them. Freeman’s narration reminds us of what we do not, or even cannot, know about the penguins—the instincts that guide them to their breeding ground year after year (“We’re not exactly sure how they find their way,” Freeman says as the camera shows them stop and seem to consider their surroundings (fig. 3)), or the qualities that draw them to a prospective mate (“We don’t really know what they’re looking for in a partner”)—and  the environment in which they live is othered to its greatest extremes in terms, as Ladino observes, of human standards of experience rather than penguin:

First, [Freeman’s narration] emphasizes the remoteness of the film’s nature: “There are few places as hard to get to in this world, but there are even fewer places that are as hard to live.” Of course, just as this environment is “hard to get to” from the point of view of visiting humans, it is also “hard to live [in]” from a human perspective, not necessarily from that of the penguins, who have evolved to live there. Such statements reaffirm the anthropomorphic narrative of frontier triumph […] and serve to conflate human and penguin cultures [10]

The projections of human traits and measures of experience work just as hard in the film to distance and exoticise the penguins as they do to familiarise and guide us to identify with them. The narration encourages us to read the penguins in human terms, but these same human terms emphasise their penguin-ness, and the therefore non-human-ness or otherness of them. As explored earlier, the humour evoked in the human-like strutting, stumbling and sporting of the penguins is amusing simply because the penguins are not human. When Freeman points out how they are “just like us, really”, we can only see this mapped on to the ways in which they are not.

Grizzly Man, like March of the Penguins, is a documentary released in 2005 to critical acclaim (it has a score of 93% on Rotten Tomatoes) [11], focussing instead on bears rather than penguins and containing a much more significant human presence in the film in the form of Timothy Treadwell, various talking heads and director Werner Herzog himself. As Ladino observes, “Grizzly Man and Penguins each represent an approach to the natural world that is deeply infused with human ideals of love,” [12] but the approach of each differs in terms of how these ideals are portrayed. Much of the humanity in Grizzly Man comes from this much more overt human presence, and the anthropomorphism seems directed primarily through Treadwell’s own projections onto the bears rather than through the message the film itself seeks to send. Werner’s voiceover, however, at various points, like Freeman’s in Penguins, guides the viewer’s interpretations of the animal by imposing characteristics that may not actually be there, purporting to read the bears motives into their faces as the camera moves over them, for instance saying, “of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature […] and this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food.” [13] In each film, voiceover guides the audience’s reading of animal behaviour in a very specific ways—in Penguins we see the other living and loving and acting just like us in the face of extremity and danger; in Grizzly Man the other, the bear, is the danger—that, as the tagline suggests, “In nature, there are boundaries,” [14] that keep us distanced, where in Penguins it’s our similarities with the penguins which highlight our differences.


[1] The 78th Academy Awards (2006), The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, https://www.oscars.org/awards/academyawards/legacy/ceremony/78th.html, (accessed 4 April 2013)

[2] March of the Penguins (2005), Rotten Tomatoes, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/march_of_the_penguins, (accessed 4 April 2013)

[3] March of the Penguins (G), BoxOffice.com, https://www.boxoffice.com/statistics/movies/march-of-the-penguins-2005 (accessed 4 April 2013)

[4] Jennifer K. Ladino: ‘For the Love of Nature: Documenting Life, Death, and Animality in Grizzly Man and March of the Penguins’ in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 16, no. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 65

[5] Luc Jacquet: March of the Penguins, Warner Independent Pictures, 2005

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] Roger Ebert: ‘March of the Penguins’, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/march-of-the-penguins-2005, (accessed 4 April 2013)

[10] Ladino, p. 64

[11] Grizzly Man (2005), Rotten Tomatoes, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/grizzly_man, (accessed 7 April 2013)

[12] Ladino, 56

[13] Werner Herzog: Grizzly Man, Lions Gate Films, 2005

[14] ibid