Lately, it would appear that penguins are enjoying a spot in the limelight. Since the success of the French documentary film La marche de l’empereur (whose English language counterpart was memorably narrated by Morgan Freeman), penguins have been accredited as anthropomorphic representations of the family values often missing in our society today. The Penguin King follows one penguin’s return to South Georgia – an Antarctic island not to be confused with the American state – where he intends to father a chick and fight alongside his partner against nature’s supremacy to protect the hatchling.
Opening with panoramic views of an almost prehistoric landscape in South Georgia, the overwhelming effect of the 3D camera instantaneously becomes evident. What follows is not so much a story, but an odyssey. The titular ‘King’ returns to his native island flanked by his two (decidedly mafia like) cousins, with the intent to find his annual mate.
Sir David Attenborough’s narrative changes somewhat from his usual objective tone as he describes our protagonist’s comical efforts to attract the attention of his chosen female. The mood quickly changes and the music implies that the mating will commence… that is until ‘the malt’, a scene which will likely raise a few laughs from the audience. None so much, however, as the apparent rivalry between the King and his cousin to find mates, the consequences of which are as misanthropic as they are hilarious.
Eventually, we come face to face with the penguins’ predatorial pursuers, such as the giant petrel. There is something about having the focus on a central character that undeniably pulls upon one’s heartstrings to empathise with the King’s fight for his chick’s survival. The editing during these moments is particularly spectacular, cutting between anxious penguin fathers and the petrel’s opportunistic movements. However, the perspective revealed by the 3D camera during the unmissable, pioneering underwater filming makes the sealion appear the most terrifying of opponents. Undoubtedly, the unlikely stars of the show seem to be the indolent and rather obese elephant seals, especially if you can appreciate a little toilet humour.
Due to the narrative similarities between March of the Penguins and The Penguin King it would be very difficult not to compare them. Or at least not to compare the narrative voice of the two greatest voices in the industry today, however, it would seem that Attenborough’s unparalleled enthusiasm and passion for the subject combined with The Penguin King‘s remarkable cinematography gives it a strong upper hand.
Afterwards, Broadway cinema screened a live Q&A with Attenborough, in which he replied to the questions of the film’s producer Anthony Gethan, as well as those from the audience. When asked why it was he chose penguins as his subject, it may have been supposed that he would talk of their majestic waddle and their feather tuxedo. In response to this question, he said that as the 3D camera at the time of filming took four people to carry, penguins were the only essentially stationary animals of interest.
Despite the earlier mentioned interest in penguins being centred on their anthropomorphisation, Attenborough stressed that this was not his intention. He wished to narrate the genuine thoughts of the penguin that he believed to actually be visible, such as hunger or agitation, although he later admitted that in fact it was quite impossible not to humanise an animal that can often appear so bizarrely human. Fans of these fluffy creatures and of Attenborough’s ever sterling work will not be disappointed by the personality and prowess on show here.