2 Stars - Weak
The Emperor penguins of the Antarctic are amazingly resilient. Having adapted to the arctic climate of 40 to 80 degrees below zero, these knee-high birds neither fly nor build nests, but instead they march, slide, swim and hold their eggs on their feet. What makes the story of their lives moving is the power of the community to provide shelter for their young. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a penguin tribe to birth a chick.
Narrated by Morgan Freeman in the English version of this French film, this National Geographic-sponsored documentary portrays the survival technique of community life during the penguin’s nine-month birthing cycle on the frozen ocean of Antarctica. While explaining that a lone penguin cannot survive the winter months on its own, the cameras take us seventy miles away from the ice’s edge to the place where generations of penguins have given birth. It is a place where the ice is thick enough to last from March to November while the penguins mate, nurture their eggs and care for their young. The level of sacrifice required by both mothers and fathers is life-threatening and often life-taking.
Living their lives in the sea, the penguins in their fifth year of life instinctively gather to march in a single-file line back to their place of birth. Like humans on a spiritual pilgrimage, the often aggressive males become docile and cooperative as they gather along with the females from all over the region. Arriving on the same day at about the same hour by following their instinctual call to come together for the sake of their very existence, the mating is monogamous, at least for the next nine months.
As the eggs are exchanged from the mothers to the fathers so that the females can retrace their steps to the sea and eat food for the young chicks to eat upon their return, the fathers begin a two-month incubation in which they keep the eggs off the ice by holding them on the top of their feet and under the fold of their once plump bodies. Not eating for four months, the fathers struggle against the 100 miles per hour winter storms by creating a large huddle. This huddle can involve as many as half a million birds.
The beauty of the film is also its weakness. With little narration and even less information, the film becomes more a work of art than a documentary of the birds’ lives. The drive to survive in the most difficult place on earth has clearly required these beautiful birds to create a moment in which their reproduction becomes a moving drama. The tragedy of lost eggs and frozen chicks are woven together with purposeful sacrifice and responsible dedication. As the film comes to an end and the ice melts to within 200 yards of the new chicks, their first excursion into the beautiful blue ocean reveals a victory over the worst that nature could produce and life’s victory over it.
- The sacrifice of both mother and father to give birth to their young is exemplary. What are the sacrifices that your mother and father made to give you your beginning in life?
- The bond that is formed between the chick and its parents is abruptly brought to an end only months after the chick’s birth. What do you believe is the best way to launch a human being from their parents’ care – abruptly or gradually? Why?
- John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement within Christianity, once noted that “there is no such thing as a solitary Christian.” This explanation that it takes a community to form a Christian is exemplified in the Emperor penguins’ lives. In what way has your life been formed by your community? How have you been failed by your community?
- The huddling mass of males to protect the lives of their young is a good model for how human males should live. What do you think the world would be like if human fathers huddled together to find solutions to protect their young?