when watching this film i compared it to others like it, this is an important point. i’ll admit up front that i’m more cynical and critical than most and that certainly didn’t help in viewing this film. my major problems with the film, documentary, whatever you want to call it, are: the artifice, the manipulation, and the anthropomorphic narrative.
right away you are given the impression that the filmmakers are out to tug on your heart strings by any means necessary. what do i mean by this? well, 1) they want to move you to tears and 2) they’re willing to fudge the facts and make something out of nothing, or more accurately, a lot of something out of something else. what leads me to believe this and how did they do it? it is evident in several scenes that sound effects were added after the filming. whether it’s because of wind or the fact that cameras are too far away, we know that a lot of the sounds had to be dubbed in while in the editing room. in some instances it appeared as though sounds that didn’t actually go with the action were being added in, to heighten effect. e.g., a penguin falls on another penguin and the second penguin gives a little squeak. it’s funny, but the camera was too far away and i didn’t see the beak open, so i suspect the squeak was added for effect. the effect is two-fold – it makes us laugh and it makes us think penguins are like us. this anthropomorphic idea is echoed throughout the film visually, auditorily and in freeman’s narrative. e.g. “they’re going on this journey for love” or “they’re not that much different from us.” this is all without even mentioning the fact that is put in plain view at the end of the film while the credits are rolling: two credits come up of significance – a foley artist (studio sound creator) and a digital effects person. neither would be necessary in a similar documentary put out by national geographic. and this is gets to my major complaint: the story of life, and of these animals in particular, is very very fascinating yet the filmmakers felt the need to meddle and manipulate anyway. it’s not all that much more interesting than the story of the great blue herons, or monarch butterflies, or salmon, or many other animals that go on long journeys in their lives. but since the penguins waddle along like old humans we find it cute and go to the theater in droves.
this is at least the third french documentary on wildlife which has reached the rest of the world. the first (microcosmos) was by far the best, but barely had a narrative and it was about insects and small bugs, so it didn’t do very well. the second was winged migration which employed an extremely questionable methodology (essentially caging the birds each night so they could follow them the next day for filming) and was moderately successful. the first two, by the way, were done by the same guy (perrin). the third is march of the penguins which has done very well and is much more aggressive in its narrative and anthropomorphic viewpoint.
a lot of all this comes down to personal preference, as it often does. i much prefer a national geographic style documentary which shies away from crafty editing to mold a storyline that isn’t really there. the national geographic style is much more of a fly on the wall style – they give the facts, follow the animals, explain certain behaviors and leave out the commentary. microcosmos does this extremely well. i don’t think it’s possible to watch this film as anything other than a documentary, and, as a documentary, i think it’s intellectually dishonest and manipulative. all that said, it’s not the worst thing in the world – they didn’t outright lie and even if they did, it’s only a documentary about interesting birds; it’s not like lying about weapons of mass destruction or something. again, ultimately the story is quite an interesting one. life has hundreds of stories like this, though, so let’s not think that this one stands alone. and, let’s not think that this documentary tells the story the way it actually is. C- as is, B- if muted.