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March of the Penguins

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/22/05 16:57:46

"Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww..."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I dare you to find a more adorable animal on this planet than the penguin. Otters? Baby seals? Manatees? Sure, they’re cute enough, I suppose, but nothing can rival the power of a penguin. In fact, the only thing cuter than a penguin is a baby penguin. Even the coldest and meanest will melt at the sight of a baby penguin.

Which brings me to “March of the Penguins,” a remarkable documentary from filmmaker Luc Jacquet. Jacquet and his crew spent the better part of a year in Antarctica - although, considering the cold and the wind and the snow, is there really a “better part” of any year spent in Antarctica? The continent is perhaps the most beautiful place on our globe, but it is also perhaps the most unwelcoming.

Which makes Jacquet’s work all the more impressive. Despite the brutal conditions, his crew managed to bring in footage of the most spectacular sort. This is beautiful stuff here, a wonder for the eyes.

Jacquet’s year down south is spent watching the ritual of the Emperor penguin, which goes something like this: leaving their home near the water at summer’s end, the penguins waddle their way inland, some traveling over seventy miles and taking a full week, non-stop, until they arrive at their mating ground. This ground has served as the winter home for these birds for thousands of years, and every year, it’s the same ceremony. Days are spent finding a mate. (“We don’t know what they’re looking for,” the narration reveals. “We only know they’re looking.”) Once a mate is found, work begins on producing an egg.

The birth of an egg leads to a beautiful dance of sorts, in which the female passes off the egg to the male, who must keep the egg sheltered from the cold, balanced delicately on his feet, hidden under a flap of nice, warm belly. The mothers then head back to the water to load up on food, while the men stay behind as the egg hatches.

There’s more to the story, of course - much, much more - and it’s all hauntingly beautiful. There’s a gentleness to these creatures that simply stuns (to see two penguins cuddling is to be enveloped by warmth and wonder), and while there is so much we may never know about them - how do they pick their mates each year? how do they manage to keep finding each other after months apart? - there is so much to them that feels so familiar. Maybe these birds aren’t in love, maybe their signs of affection are merely part of some unexplained ritual. But to the viewer, it sure looks otherwise. It seems as if these mates are genuinely in love, and the connection we see between two mates is stunning.

This being a nature documentary, Jacquet does not shy away from the sadder aspects of reality - yet he does his best not to dwell on them, either. The filmmaker seems to be working with a family audience in mind, as the narration repeatedly uses the terms “vanishes” and “disappears” as a euphemism for “dies.” There are times when the film focuses directly with death - one scene shows a penguin becoming the victim of a hungry seal, another shows lifeless, frozen babies following a nasty storm - but it is all done with a delicate touch. Too delicate, some may argue, but it would seem that showing too much death would go against the movie’s delicate, peaceful nature.

Speaking of the narration, the film offers up several choices, different narrators chosen for different nations. For the film’s English-speaking viewers, there’s none less than Morgan Freeman. It’s the right choice, of course. Freeman’s elegant voice is the perfect match for this awe-inspiring imagery, his soothing tones a lovely compliment to the serene imagery. (I am told that the French soundtrack includes voice-overs of the penguins “talking,” a bizarre choice which, for once, makes me happy to not bother with the original language track.)

The voice, the sights, and the events all gel to create a remarkable movie experience. While there is nothing particularly extraordinary about Jacquet’s film (in the end, it all feels like nothing more than a really good Imax movie you’d catch at your neighborhood museum, or maybe a solid Discovery Channel special), it is without question a true stunner. This is a simple work expertly made, starring the cutest creatures on Earth.

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