When the Academy Award for Best Documentary is presented tonight, one nominee will have more fans than all its competitors combined: “March of the Penguins,” the charming nature film that has already become the fourth-highest-grossing documentary of all time, behind only “Woodstock,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and “That’s Entertainment.”
This success is not accidental. Directed by Luc Jacquet and narrated for the American audience by Morgan Freeman, “March of the Penguins” is a beautifully filmed example of the traditional nature documentary. It offers an intimate glimpse into the family lives of wild creatures, emphasizing nature’s exoticism even as it tames it, showing us the characteristics other animals share with us. Penguins may seem odd — funny walk, funny habits — but their quirks are endearing, and the film’s depiction of parents sharing hatching duties while the entire penguin community bands together to survive the Antarctic winter has inspired cultural conservatives to extol their anthropomorphized “family values.”
But there is more than one way to make a nature film. Another of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentaries, “Darwin’s Nightmare,” with its startling depiction of evolution, globalization, and social disintegration in Africa, represents a potent alternative vision of the genre’s possibilities. Where “March of the Penguins” suggests reassuringly that the penguins’ sheer resilience will keep them alive, as it always has, “Darwin’s Nightmare” is a disconcerting and dystopian look at the human capacity to wreak environmental havoc, with no happy ending in sight. Less pleasant to watch than penguins, but just as carefully constructed, “Darwin’s Nightmare” offers a more complex and relevant examination of the natural world today…. Directed by the Austrian Hubert Sauper, “Darwin’s Nightmare” takes place around the city of Mwanza, Tanzania, on the shores of mighty Lake Victoria — site of an ecological disaster. In the 1960s, regional authorities introduced the Nile perch into its waters, apparently intended as a new source of food, although whether for locals or for export remains unclear. The perch, a six-foot-long predator, quickly decimated the native fish populations and ruined the lake’s biodiversity.