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

A A A

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
News
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
people70-year-old was most famous for 'You are So Beautiful'
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballLatest score and Twitter updates
Arts and Entertainment
David Hasselhof in Peter Pan
The US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
tech
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'