The Magazine

Antarctic Story

Why human beings like "March of the Penguins."

Nov 7, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 08 • By JOE QUEENAN
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INNUMERABLE THEORIES (well, let's say six) have been put forth to explain the phenomenal success of the documentary March of the Penguins. The most obvious is that everyone loves penguins, as opposed to wolves, deer, or mandrills. A recent film by the revered German auteur Werner Herzog, about a man who befriended an ingrate grizzly bear that eventually ate him, did not fare nearly as well at the box office, and sharks, rats, and anacondas have been in a serious commercial slump for some time.

It is not true, however, that affection for penguins is universal. When I suggested to my 85-year-old mother, who had not been to the movies since The Mask of Zorro came out in 1998, that we take in March of the Penguins, she politely declined, saying that she would rather wait for The Legend of Zorro, as she much preferred the way Antonio Banderas carried himself to the clumsy waddling of the self-absorbed denizens of the Antarctic who, at least in her view, may only clamber about in that cunningly maladroit way when they know the camera is on them. (Of course, she is a typically contrary native Philadelphian, and may only be saying this to be mean.)

The heat wave that coincided with the release of the film may also explain why it did so well at the box office, as would the Schadenfreudic delight derived by Americans once they found out that the miserable camera crew that spent 13 months documenting the penguins' herculean mating rituals in the most brutal temperatures known to man--very nearly perishing in the process--were French. Nor can we overlook the fact that, at just 85 minutes, March of the Penguins is the perfect chick flick, providing men with a rare opportunity to accompany their spouses, girlfriends, or mistresses to a film they would probably not see if left to their own devices, but that at least will not make them ill. (The last film meeting these criteria was the 2002 comedy Bend It Like Beckham, which featured cute English girls in shorts.)

Yet another explanation for the success of the film is the notion that it supports the theory of intelligent design. Penguins clamber out of the water, waddle 70 miles to a mysterious, preordained mating ground, pair off with a suitable member of the opposite sex, and procreate. Then the winter sets in and the animals suffer prodigiously. Once the eggs appear, the males cover them with their fur, incubating them for four months while the females stagger back to the water, eat everything that isn't nailed down, then waddle back to feed the chicks. George Will, among others, has questioned how such a cumbersome, often fatal, procedure could possibly affirm the hidden hand of a wise, all-knowing creator. Frankly, a case can be made that the whole thing suggests that Mother Nature is sometimes asleep at the wheel.

Certainly, the fashion in which the film has been edited for release in America has contributed to its wide appeal. Shot and released by a French producer, the film originally featured talking penguins trying to make themselves heard above a lethal French soundtrack. But when it was repackaged by National Geographic, the cute dialogue got deep-sixed, a generic New Age nature film soundtrack was substituted, and the narration of Morgan "The Voice of God" Freeman was imposed over the proceedings. Narration is becoming terribly fashionable in films these days, as it liberates directors from the cumbersome duty of actually having to shoot their films. If you don't believe me, check out Million Dollar Baby. Or Sin City. Or Good Bye, Lenin! Or any other film released in the past three years.

My own theory about the film's popularity is much simpler. Initially, I subscribed to the belief that the public deliberately made a hit out of March of the Penguins just to punish Hollywood for continuing to release cynical trash like The Island, Bewitched, and Stealth. The public, an ornery lot, has done this sort of thing before, capriciously voting thumbs-down to industry-designated blockbusters, and transforming demure charmers like Sideways or cornpone like My Big Fat Greek Wedding into preposterously huge hits.

But at long last, I no longer think this is the case. Speaking for myself and, therefore, as a proxy for most redblooded males, I now believe that the appeal of the film abides in its deceptively ambiguous sexual politics. Just as women have always flocked to Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, and even Hugh Grant movies because they secretly wish they were married to debonair sophisticates instead of the tattooed psychopaths into whose hands Fate has delivered them, many women seem to be smitten by the selfless behavior of the male penguins, who not only help out with the kids, but do it in subfreezing weather where their very survival is at stake. It probably also helps that penguins have more hair than most American men past the age of 35.

Ironically, the film's appeal to men also relates to child-rearing, but for exactly the opposite reason. A male penguin spends four months on the edge of death in Antarctica, but after that has no other responsibilities to his offspring. He doesn't have to feed them. He doesn't have to nurture them. He doesn't have to raise the cash to send them to college. Medical coverage is not an issue. Hand-holding sessions are not required. This is why men draw exactly the opposite conclusion from the film than women: Most men would willingly suffer hideous deprivation for four months during a savage Antarctic winter if it would free them from any further responsibilities to their progeny.

Speaking personally, with two kids at expensive colleges, the whole thing strikes me as a win-win proposition. So next reincarnation, I'm coming back as a penguin. Sounds like an intelligent design to me.

Joe Queenan is author, most recently, of Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglo-phile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.