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.


  1. Alastair

    September 5, 2005 at 2:02 pm

    Coincidentally, this documentary was featured on the BBC website this morning; I was left wanting to see it out of curiosity, if not my fondness for good documentaries, but suddenly I’m not so sure. Perhaps I should just continue to save up for Palin’s complete set of series on DVD.

  2. Seb

    September 5, 2005 at 3:41 pm

    Very diverting essay, Alistair. Enjoyed your article on the Divan Orchestra concert too – didn’t hear/listen to that one, but am quite shocked that Barenboim should have stopped conducting at various points – since I’ve always felt that much of the dynamism of live performance (particularly from a player’s point of view) comes through the constant communication between conductor and orchestra. Talking of collaborative concerts, really enjoyed the combined RAM/Juilliard concert on Saturday. Somehow it feels wrong to admit to enjoying Vaughan Williams so much?
    Anyway, thought I’d drop you a line,
    Seb (a virgin blogger – no more!)

  3. rhino75

    September 5, 2005 at 4:02 pm

    I feared it might be like that though. These films always smack a little to me of Johnny Morris and “Animal Magic” – i.e. more anthropomorphism than you can shake a stick at. I love penguins as much as the next man but a little of them goes a long way, as I discovered lying for two hours, freezing my b*lls off, watching them play on a beach on Otway Sound. Mind you, they were the mini-version, rather than the full-sized Emperor brand. But I digress, the important thing is that you posted :))

  4. julesnemo

    September 5, 2005 at 11:55 pm

    So how did find our fair city of Toronto?

    I hope you got a chance to see the new Cirque Du Soleil show “Corteo”.

    Look forward to your journals on your Canadian trip.

  5. Valerie

    September 6, 2005 at 4:24 am

    Whoa Alistair – Letting off a little steam. Geez I had thought I go see this film and maybe I still will. But you cetainly seemed steamed up. It’s just a little film. Oh well.In truth I do enjoy British TV because it is more true life and not all glitz and glamourized as in USA. If I want to see a documentary about animals I watch PBS. Nothing like a lioness chasing down a gazelle for the kill.
    You’ve just been to one of my favorite cities-Toronto. Love it. Are you globe trotting for work or pleasure?
    Brazil must be coming up soon.

  6. Paul

    September 6, 2005 at 4:53 pm

    it isn’t supposed to be ‘life on earth’ so moaning that it isn’t seems a bit pointless. and it’s hardly ‘trounced’ the summer blockbusters either..

  7. Danny

    September 6, 2005 at 9:12 pm

    Alistair, I am a little disappointed with your review. I am a gay man living in America, and proud. I love watching you. And also reading your stories. You seem such an intelligent person. And I admire many things that you do. But your review of a so called “hollywood documentary” of the penguins disappoints me in the sense that you previously have all but praised hollywood and its so called documentaries, such as that of Michael Moore’s. That film has so many, so so many false statements and it portrayals are inane to say the least. But you have called it a “documentary”. I’m disappointed that you are so intelligent and yet you seem to contradict yourself in a few ways in your writings. I am passionate about this because I have many friends in Iraq, and i know how brave and honest they are in what their mission is, to help people, and not to conquer, a nation. I apologize to you for this long response but you do not seem to have your mind made up when it comes to Hollywood; your piece on the penguins doc reveals how unrealistic it is. The Moore doc is just as unrealistic. People can not have it both ways. I am a proud American gay man, attended Sorbonne, and it is disappointing to find that so many outside of the United States, do not get the real picture of America. The media over there do not portray, the real America and how much can love and give to our brothers and sisters in other countries. Well just had to give my view. I am a big fan, and I do wish you the best. Please use your intelligence to throughly research a subject, such as American views, before fully judging everyone based on a few. All best to you, Danny

  8. estupor

    September 7, 2005 at 12:39 am

    I think it’s a very nice text, and i would like to see you reading it. You are the most sexy man I’ve seen in the tv, and I’m absolulty in love with you. Your spanish fan.

  9. Steve

    September 7, 2005 at 3:08 am

    Oh, get over yourself, girlfriend.

  10. Valerie

    September 7, 2005 at 5:58 pm

    HUH ??????????

  11. Doug

    September 7, 2005 at 8:29 pm

    Hey there, A:

    I liked the movie but I went in thinking it was going to be a lot less harsh. I mean, of course the little darlings have it rough, but I wanted to see a little MORE Bambi and a little less of the bad stuff. You have to mix it up, but after seeing them huddle together for fear of freezing for most of the year, I had to go home and have a hot bath! What I didn’t like was “Oh there’s and egg. it cracks and the chick dies. There’s another baby chick who wandered away and dies. There’s a sea lion eating a penguin. There’s a bird eating a baby penguin.” Ai yi yi.

  12. Danny

    September 8, 2005 at 3:48 am

    Dear Alistair,
    I truely am a huge fan of yours. And in your writings you have described how free
    and how great it is to be a gay man. It was in that sense that I used the word proud.
    I just thought I’d clear that up.
    Good luck with everything. And my post on your site was simply an observation.
    My granny (as I call her, alive and well at age 98) was born in Gloucester, England.
    And in my travels across England and most of all in Europe, I see first hand how
    the media over there gives a one sided view of America.
    I truely had no intention of being an “irrition” nor that my comment provoke
    hard feelings.
    Anyway, all the best to you Alistair.

  13. Richard

    September 8, 2005 at 4:16 am

    Alistair, my dear. You forget that “March of the Penguins” is a great date movie. I took my boyfriend to see it. He was skeptical that it was going to be some boring art film. It was quite erotic. The cranning necks and beautiful scenery made for some wonderful moments in the crowded theater. Of course, here in America, PDAs between two men are not often welcomed, but we didn’t care about that.

    I am glad that you have been enjoying your trip to our wonderful neighbor to the north. Perhaps some of their open-mindedness can rub off on us.

  14. Anon

    September 9, 2005 at 2:14 pm

    Re: Danny, and “inane” depictions in Fahrenheit 9-11
    Fahrenheit 9-11 was a compilation of actual interviews with actual Americans. It featured our politicians and authentic documents. You may object to the way some Americans came off in that film, but it was their own words and actions that did them in. If you have a problem with it, you should focus on changing the ignorant americans around you instead of concerning yourself with how our actions are being spun for the rest of the world. What is “inane” about a mother wanting to know why her child died in a war she doesn’t understand? What is “inane” about asking politicians why they’re willing to send others’ children to war but not their own?
    Your “friends” must feel like great white liberators when they’re shooting people. I’ve heard the “liberator” excuse before…

  15. Valerie

    September 9, 2005 at 2:54 pm

    Re: Anon
    Are you using that non de plume so as not to commit
    yourself or as the general anon speaking for a group.
    Anon name thyself.
    This is getting to be a regular debate place.
    Alisatair are you out there?
    Oh well I guess its good that people are out there thinking
    instead of just vegitating through life.
    I for one could use some good comic relief this week.
    Good Weekend to all. Enjoy and stay safe.

  16. Danny

    September 9, 2005 at 9:55 pm

    I believe that you prove my point so well Anon. I don’t think I ever called anyone “ignorant” or any
    other thing for that matter. And yet a whole group of people are labelled as ignorant
    according to your comment. My orig comment, as I stated, was simply an observation.
    The movie is Hollywood’s version of a subject, and to call it “real”, call it a documentary
    of life events, —
    when you see that hollywood version and you do not go deeper to reseach actual
    facts, it is
    inane. That film was edited so well in that it gave a one sided view. It was done to
    make money. Michael Moore simply put more money into his pocket.

    My comment in earlier posts was an observation based on my travels. And no we
    are not great “white liberators” as you call us. Nor “ignorant” Americans as you call us.
    I hope we don’t slide down the path of name calling. Nor make this a political forum.
    Instead of name calling, I wish everyone here the best. We all have views, I just hope that
    before judging that we do some homework.
    Anyway good luck to all. And sorry Alistair if this has turned political. There are so many people
    that need help and bickering doesn’t help at all.
    We should all stand together as a community. And stop the hatered that runs rampant
    throughout the world based on “hollywood”, “one sided media stories, and just mere
    destructive hate.
    Best wishes and good luck to all,
    Danny (happy living with my boyfriend and have good friends that are caring and
    Again, best of luck to everyone out there. We are all fans of Alistair and his beautiful smile.
    Take care!

  17. Brian

    September 10, 2005 at 8:53 am

    Powaqaatsi! That’s all I’ve got to say when it comes to documentaries.

  18. David

    September 15, 2005 at 1:37 am

    Just for the record birds don’t have penises, so you will never be seeing one in any documentary. 🙂

  19. David

    September 15, 2005 at 1:48 am

    Actually, I should have said most bird species don’t. There are a few species of ducks and the ostrich that have a penis like sexual organ. Most birds have a cloaca, which is a cavity that their intestinal and reproductive empty to. Birds mate by touching their cloacas together to pass the semen. So, in most birds all you can ever really see is mounting and pressing their bodies together.

  20. Jack

    October 4, 2005 at 6:00 pm

    Documentaries are necessarily subjective, no? Even if the author’s intent is to be objective, the final result will always be informed (consciously or not) by his/her biases and experiences.
    March of the Penguins is being billed as a documentary that upholds “Family Values” – the euphemism in the US for heterosexual/normative nuclear families. The movie fails to note – and some argue, actively omits – that while penguins mate for life – they sometimes mate for life with a penguin of the same sex. This is the “messiness” of life: there are infinite permutations beyond the “norm”. The makers of the documentaries missed out on (or dismissed) the opportunity to use the penguin colonies as a way to put up a mirror on our own societies, but instead, used it to create a straight-laced normative narrative that we’ve heard so many times before.

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