Morgan Freeman, in that I-so-sound-like-God-that-you-have-to-believe-me voice of his, calls the wildly successful "March of the Penguins" a bona fide "love story."
But if I acted like one of the film's stars, I'd be called a "ho" -- and a practiced one at that.
Of course, I'm not a penguin, and so I don't pick a new partner every year, mate, produce a chick outdoors in frigid temperatures, then abandon my baby to the harsh elements months later.
That is precisely the point.
Anthropomorphizing works for Disney and the French filmmakers, who made the documentary being released Tuesday on DVD. But in the American version, it intrudes on a story about creatures that would tickle our imaginations all by themselves, without turning them into mini-people.
(Sure, sure, animals have feelings, animals have personalities, and, we, too, are animals who display primitive behavior. Still, we are not waddling birds, and the birds are not waddling humans.)
The 80-minute documentary was released in U.S. theaters earlier this year, surprising the industry with so much critical and popular acclaim that "March" is now the second-highest-grossing documentary ever (behind Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11"). It is on the march to further glory, having won top honors at film festivals and nominated for more. It will likely be a contender for the Best Documentary Oscar.
The story Freeman narrates against the backdrop of arresting footage covers a year in the life of emperor penguins in Antarctica, starting in March, from their playground at the water's edge to mating grounds about 70 miles away across ice and snow.
Each year, males and females pair off, with the mother laying an egg that the father then protects while the mother drags herself back 70 miles to get enough food to survive, go back again to her offspring and feed her young. At that point, the males return to the water to get food for themselves. Eventually, the parents go away and the chicks are left to fend for themselves. The next year, the cycle starts all over again with new partners (making it hard to understand why some people call this a movie with "family values").
The narrative is replete with efforts to show just how much human and penguin social skills resemble each other.
They "make love" (except every time with a new partner); they protect their young (except there was that one scene where a bird menaces some baby chicks and the adults just watch. Hmm).
"March" also doesn't tell those of us who value the lyrics along with the music some basic facts about the adorable animals. How long do they live? Height and weight? Do they face environmental threats? "March" is mum.
Euphemisms for life's tough realities left my 9-year-old with questions. The penguins don't die while schlepping miles through sub-zero blizzards; they simply, Freeman tells us, "disappear."
Asked my daughter: "Where did they go then?"
Me: "They died."
My daughter: "Why did they say 'disappeared'?"
"March" was directed by Luc Jacquet, who spent four years in some of the world's harshest conditions to capture on film the life cycle of the world's largest penguins. Watching the movie in the theater left me wanting to know about the filmmakers' journey, too; the DVD provides the details.
Laura Johnson, director of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, which previewed the movie, says "March of the Penguins" fits into the category of impressionistic filmmaking, where the pictures are beautiful "and you sense something wonderful about the animals" but in which scientific details are not abundant. "It's just this beautiful appreciation of nature, and I think that does have value."
That said, the original French version was different from the film released in the United States. The original was even more over the top in its anthropomorphizing, allowing the audience to "hear" penguins thoughts.
Anthropomorphism is a legitimate storytelling device, and there is as much variety in wildlife and nature filmmaking as in other filmmaking genres. But don't we lose something when we blur the line between what we know (what penguins do) and what is unknowable (what penguins think and feel)?
Here's one example:
"The pain of her loss is unimaginable," Freeman says of a penguin mother whose chick has died. The film shows her mourning her frozen chick in such grief that she tries to steal another penguin's baby. Never mind that mother penguins recognize their chicks by sound, and that animal experts suggest the mother probably wouldn't even recognize the dead penguin.
My friends are appalled when I suggest the film is anything but wonderful or that it exaggerates the link between penguin and human evolution.
"They are penguins with all their evolved penguin feelings for each other," one said.
Indeed, they are. These birds are tough cookies, having evolved over millions of years to adapt to wind and snow and ice that would freeze the vital parts of any Homo sapiens. That doesn't quite mean the penguins think the same way as the creatures who have figured out how to make a movie about them.