Nature still manages to outdo George Lucas. Baby penguins, covered in scruffy brown fur that makes them look like full-figured bag ladies, are actually cuter even than Ewoks. In time the brown fur falls off to reveal the resplendent formal attire of the full-grown king penguin--paraded in all its quirky glory tonight in "King Penguin: Stranded Beyond the Falklands," a CBS special at 8 on Channel 9.
Those "stranded" are not the penguins, who seem perfectly happy tottering and surfing on the frigid coast of South Georgia, 800 miles southeast of the Falkland Islands, but wildlife photographers Cindy Buxton and Annie Price, who planned to spend six months on South Georgia shooting this Survival Anglia special but who, late in their stay, found themselves on the periphery of the bizarre British-Argentine war of last year. They were never bombarded, but they were cut off from radio contact and their stay was lengthened because of the war.
Too much is made of this in the program, as if some sort of "dramatic" hook were needed to keep viewers tuned to a nature special, and as a result, too little is seen of the penguins, good-natured, stout fellows that they are, and of the huge elephant seals who also live in this remote icy wilderness, and of the endearingly intelligent-looking light-mantled sooty albatross, truly a bird of character. All these creatures are so blase' about being constantly buffeted by raw nature that it appears nothing in creation could faze them. We humans could probably have a nuclear war and they'd never get wind of it. They'd just keep on fishing and swimming and sunbathing as they have for centuries.
The photography by Buxton and Price is superb, but it has been edited in a coldly clinical way by Leslie Parry, so that shots we'd love to linger over are off the screen in a flash. The king penguins are considered "the most handsome" of the 17 penguin species in the world, says narrator Orson Welles; they're about three feet tall, they weigh around 40 pounds each, and their black-and-white silent-movie attire is elegantly accented with bright orange and yellow spots on their necks and faces.
They bob, they frolic, they belly-flop down glaciers, flap their flippers and preen. When the camera pans a sprawling crowd scene of 40,000 king penguins, it seems a pity there's no penguin De Mille standing over them with a megaphone, but when they mate, the production is more in the spirit of Mack Sennett. They're perennial conventioneers always trying to maintain a semblance of dignity, even when in mid-waddle they fall flat on their faces.
Producer Colin Willock wrote the narration, and far too much of it. There's some literal British flag-waving along the way (the photographers just happen to have a Union Jack with them to unfurl when they hear war has broken out). Buxton, as it happens, is the daughter of Lord Aubrey Buxton, executive producer of the Survival Anglia specials, which are made in association with the World Wildlife Fund. Survival Anglia Ltd. could learn a couple of things from America's National Geographic specials: the judicious use of music, and the wisdom of occasionally having the narrator shut up. Obviously Willock spent so much money getting Welles that he had no music budget; the program's meager background scoring, uncredited, is trite bilge.
Welles calls the penguins "frock-coated dandies." They are joys to behold, such joys that Survival Anglia presented another special on them, "Penguin Summer," skillfully narrated by Jason Robards, on CBS in 1981. A spokesman for Survival Anglia said from New York yesterday, however, that that was "a totally different special about totally different penguins"--specifically, gentoos and rockhoppers, who are not as regally decked out as kings.
Despite the occasional misjudgment, the hour is a delight, an invigorating expedition. The penguins, perpetually busy and uncomplaining, perform with contagious amiability, trundling and probing and convening in discussion groups. They appear to think that the world is quite a marvelous place, even at its antarctic frigid extreme, and that it was put here all for them. And so perhaps it was.