It seeped into my consciousness that “The March of the Penguins” was a must-see movie this year. Someone had mentioned it was a good example of the documentary films that were trouncing Hollywood block-busters at the summer box-office. So since I had an hour to kill before the end of my lovely trip to Toronto, I thought I’d see it.
Penguins are cute and penguins are intrinsically funny. Seeing a line of penguins walking in a line across the spectacular Antartic landscape is both endearing and amusing. Emperor penguins in particular are extremely beautiful and elegant birds.
There was one moment about a third of the way through Luc Jacquet’s film, when a male and female Emperor find each other and – one presumes – fall in love. (They’re famously monogamous birds.) The simple image of the two bird silently curving their necks to one another and softly billing each other’s necks was incredibly eloquent.
Much, much more so than the inane voice-over that completely ruined an otherwise pleasant if anodyne 90 minutes.
Call me hard-hearted but since when did natural history films become so prudish and bowdlerized? I thought the secret joy of nature films was to see the nitty-gritty of life and death, sex and love ubnabashedly exhibited by our animal brethren. As a kid, I learnt most things about human behaviour from animal shows. I mean, even Disney let us see Bambi’s mother getting killed. And that was in 1942…
But here in 2005 the birds don’t die, they “disappear into the snowy whiteness” or “go to sleep and simply disappear”. More astonishingly, they don’t have sex either. There were some coy shots of birds clambering onto one another and then – voila – there was an egg.
Is there some puritan sensibility at work that now dictates that we cannot see birds having sex for fear of shocking Middle America. I longed for David Attenborough’s matter-of-fact voice explaining how penguin penises delivered sperm, how the mothers coughed up – presumably – regurgitated food to feed their young. All the icky, sticky business of life was edited out of this film, leaving only a series of “oohs” as we see little fluffy chicks and “aahs” as another graceful emperor penguin slips and falls on his arse.
Instead of that jaw-dropping amazement David Attenborough’s natural history films engendered – (I got the feeling the BBC Natural History Unit would have dealt with this whole penguin business in a 5 minute segment) – I was left feeling rather irritated with these animals. For God’s sake why walk 70 miles everytime you want to get some food? Why not have the chicks nearer the water? I definitely was getting irritated with Morgan Freeman (though of course he didn’t write the silly script) when, after one of the chicks die, he says “the mother’s pain is overwhelming” or when the father leaves on one their endless trips, “parting from the chick is a unimaginable wrench”. Such daft anthropomorphism is insulting. How the hell do we know what penguins feel?
If this is the rebirth of the documentary, then it is a sad, sanitized rebirth – without sex, without copulation and without human messiness. Bring back Life on Earth.