Penguins come out on top

Who would have thought a film about penguins could beat 'War of the Worlds' at the box office? Michael McCarthy explains why these amazing birds will always come out on top


This truth will forcefully be brought home later this year with the release of a film that has not only shed new light on one of the most distinctive groups of birds, but which has also become the surprise box-office smash hit of the summer in the US.

March of the Penguins is a low-budget movie with a big impact. Directed by a French biologist, Luc Jacquet, this wildlife documentary cost a mere £4.5m to make, but is putting more bottoms on American cinema seats than the Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise epic War of The Worlds, which cost £100m.

It focuses on the remarkable life cycle of the emperor penguin, Aptenodytes forsteri, the largest of the 17 penguin species, all of which are found in the southern hemisphere. The emperor is the southernmost species of all: it breeds on the ice-bound Antarctic land mass.

Just what it takes to do this is made rivetingly clear in the 80-minute film. At the end of the Antarctic summer, in March, the birds flop out of the waters of the Southern Ocean where they have been assiduously feeding, and begin a long trek to their mating grounds. Thousands gradually come together, tramping over the ice in long single files like patrols of infantry. The sight is mesmerising, for the march of the penguins is up to 70 miles.

When at last they reach their mating grounds on the ice, courtship begins, or, as the publicity from distributors Warner Bros has it, "in the harshest place on Earth, love finds a way." The birds mingle and chatter, with females choosing males after distinctive mating rituals captured by Jacquet and his two cameramen, who spent a whole year with the birds.

As one book on penguin behaviour puts it, "before copulation they face each other, and bow several times." Then they pair up, monogamously, to face the trials ahead. And what trials they are; for the breeding season of the emperor penguin is the Antarctic winter. As the six-month dark descends and the thermometer drops with it, to minus 60 and even lower, the female bird produces an egg - and promptly departs. The effort has been so great and she has gone without nourishment for so long - up to seven weeks - that now she must return to the sea to feed.

The task of incubating the egg in the harshest conditions on earth now falls to the male . When blizzards arrive, with 100mph winds in a nightmare of frozen dark, even these birds adapted to the conditions through millions of years of evolution have to huddle round together in great groups to keep a minimum of warmth: they look like German prisoners of war in their greatcoats, shuffling sullenly across the icy steppe.

But most survive, and so do their eggs, kept secure and warm in a fold of abdominal skin just above their feet; and after 60 days of this, the eggs hatch. The male feeds the tiny chick at first with a milky substance, then the female returns to take over, recognising her mate by call.

But success is not automatic; if the female is late back - or falls prey to leopard seals or killer whales in the water - the male has to leave the chick and return to the sea himself, or he will starve to death. (The underwater shots of the birds - streamlined fish-hunting torpedos in the water, in contrast to their awkwardness on land - are magnificent.)

March of The Penguins is narrated by Morgan Freeman (who also narrates War of The Worlds), and it is a success on two levels: firstly, by revealing this remarkable saga of life on the very edge, and displaying it in stunning colour images; and, secondly, by triggering huge waves of sympathetic emotions in the viewer.

The 37-year-old Jacquet has been a biologist and film-maker for a dozen years, specialising in the Antarctic: an earlier film was about the ferocious leopard seal. He says he feels at home in the ice. "I feel particularly comfortable in the polar environment," he said in a recent interview for National Geographic. "One gets a real sense of adventure there. Yes, you encounter a lot of difficulties. But once you stay there, your body somehow adapts. Over time you learn to deal with the terrific wind, which in some ways is worse than the cold, and you learn to minimise movement."

Asked why he thought Antarctica was so beautiful, he said: "It's indescribable. It's almost not like Earth. It's such a challenge to transmit via film the sensations you feel over there. The scale is just mind-boggling. You have icebergs that are 30km wide. It's a strange environment... there's no human reference-point for it. There are only two colour schemes.

"I wanted to tell things more as I felt them, rather than try to describe them as a scientist. It's about the struggle between life and death. It explores the outer limits of what is possible for a creature to experience. The penguins live where no other creature can. How do they do it?"

Because they're tough. His film proves it. Getting into the SAS might be hard, but getting into the emperor penguins, if there were a selection test, would be much harder.

'March of the Penguins' is due to be released in the UK later this year

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - OTE £42,000

£28000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be joining a leading s...

SThree: Associate Recruitment Consultant -Engineering -Renewable Energy

£18000 - £23000 per annum + competitive: SThree: As an Associate Recruitment C...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Media Sales Professional - Work From Home

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Enjoying rapid growth we contin...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Media Sales Professional - Work From Home

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Enjoying rapid growth we contin...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map