Following the release of March of the Penguins, producers and audiences apparently went bonkers over the feathered walking tuxedos, and a wave of arctic and penguin-related docs, both new and old, hit the retail shelves, while on a theatrical level, penguins in animated films went from supporting/bit players in Madagascar to Gene Kelly headliners in 2006's Happy Feet.
The patience of March's filmmakers staying so long in Earth's freezer paid off with related footage for the continent's other inhabitants, and the first of the docs in this double-bill from Maple, Rush Hour in Antarctica / Antarctic Printemps Express, is a fluid, tightly edited narrative that follows the main tenants who arrive before the Emperor penguins' winter sojourn.
Directed by March's Luc Jacquet (incorrectly credited to Jerome Maison on the DVD sleeve), the first of the two hour-long docs has a lighter tone, and attention is divided between Weddell seals, snow petrels, skuas, and Adelaide penguins, that slowly converge around rocky or solid ice formations, and either give birth and/or go through the whole mating rigmarole, before the temperature starts to dip, and everybody flees as pancake ice and slush signal winter's eventuality.
The photography is expectedly gorgeous, and the footage includes close macro shots from inside the petrel's snowy burrows, and crisp underwater footage that covers mother penguins on a fishing spree, and a young seal slowly giving in to his mum's coaxing, and taking his first dive into the chilly water. The filmmakers also took great care to assemble a rich array of sound effects, and through character-driven montages, they convey some intimate behaviour that avoids the usual anthropomorphic slant some nature documentarians heavily apply for younger audiences.
Christophe Henrotte's electronic score carries on the contemporary style used in the original French and Japanese versions of March, but there's no lyrics, or meditative, poetic penguinspeak. Henrotte's approach is similarly multi-thematic, and applies jazz-styled grooves, low-key techno rhythms and some tender passages as the creatures that struggle to beat spring's four month window of sunlight.
Also effective is the composer's use of the dies irae for the skuas, who bed down a hop 'n skip from the masses of Adelaide penguins, and flop down for eggs or baby chicks when they're feeling peckish, and need to train their offspring that penguin meat is an A-1 source of protein. Henrotte doesn't overuse the Medieval incantation of death, doom, and pestilence, and there's only one moment towards the doc's finale when a cue from a prior scene was tracked on, and misses its dramatic mark because of an unrelated thematic shift.
The DVD's secondary doc is part B-camera footage, and part regurgitation of the former's penguin storyline, as the producers realized they could fashion a completely new doc using extant footage, new narration, and a new score. The problem with Topsy-Turvy Penguin is that it's a retread, and director Jerome Maison creates a fictional, heavily anthropomorphosized tale of a slow-but-persistent penguin via the magic of editing; it's the same kind of trickery old TV producers used when assembling a living character from disparate and unrelated shots, and Maison also intercuts finished edited material from Rush Hour, leaving little new for viewers. Had the film been part of another DVD, the problem wouldn't be so stark.
Topsy isn't badly made - the outtakes are stunning, and Henrotte's new score uses a whistled, four-note theme that immediately establishes the singular penguin's offbeat character - but the narration repeats the same facts, and unlike the personable narrator in Rush Hour , the chosen tone for Topsy is juvenile, likely meant to address a younger audience who might appreciate the single species thread over Rush Hour's multi-species narrative. There's also more fadeouts between sequences, and too many false conclusions, although one section does stand out: as the Adelaides waddle towards the icy waters, they pass two Emperor penguins that stand as curious sentries; it's a nice capper for March of the Penguins, which begins just where Topsy-Turvy ends. (Almost.)
Maple's DVD contains sharp transfers from the PAL masters, and the stereo mix offers an atmospheric impression of life way down under. Each film comes with an English and French dub track, but there's no filmmaker bios or background info - a missed opportunity, as neither film is detailed in the IMDB, as of this writing.
Another aspect the distributors - English label Maple or Quebec-based Christal Films - should consider for related releases are some supplements which exploit the gorgeous cinematography. The Japanese 3-disc set for Fukkatsu no hi / Virus (1980) archived a beautiful montage of Antarctic outtakes set to music, which further detailed life in the world's freezer during daylight; and as the sun slowly sets and casts a pinkish hue over the blanketed continent.
Note: many of the films by the above filmmakers have appeared on DVD in France . More recent titles include the 2-disc collection Les manchots: la veritable historire, and Le monde de Luc Jacquet: ses premiers documentaires. Rush Hour in Antarctica is also available as part of the French 2- and 3-disc sets for March of the Penguins / La Marche de l'empereur, on Disc 2.
Jerome Maison's other major credit is as co-director of the making-of doc that accompanied the French and English language March DVD, Des manchots et des hommes / Of Penguins and Men.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan