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March of the Penguins

Ice Capades

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What's black and white and hilarious? If you said emperor penguins trundling like stout little drunken headwaiters across an ice floe, you'd be right. And while Luc Jacquet's remarkable documentary supplies a laugh or two at the ungainly birds' expense, March of the Penguins is guaranteed to deliver the perennial goofsters of the nature clip-reels much warranted respect.

 

 

Quite simply, Antarctic emperor penguins exist against all odds: They live in the darkest, coldest, driest and windiest part of the planet. Jacquet and his hardy film crew spent a year documenting the birds in their frozen environment; this footage, narrated by an avuncular Morgan Freeman, depicts perhaps the gutsiest and most devoted creatures on earth.

 

Each March the penguins walk 70 miles on tiny little feet inland to a valley where they will mate. After the female lays a single egg, it is transferred in a series of delicate maneuvers to the male, who positions the egg above his feet and tucked under a flap of belly. The moms then take another 70-mile hike back to the sea for food, while the dads, huddled together for warmth in the minus 100 F cold, cradle the egg for two months. Sen. Rick Santorum would do well to round up his own brood to see this G-rated film and let them study some of nature's lessons about family: parents sharing work and child-rearing, and the necessity of community.

 

Set in such a stark, pristine place, March is a beautiful film, even as it unfolds in virtually three colors: the monochromatic ice-blue of the frozen landscape and the stark black and white of the penguins. Jacquet captures both scenes of astonishing, almost abstract beauty -- an endless single-file line of waddling penguins artfully breaks the sky from the indistinguishable ground -- and sentimental wonder: The cuteness of baby penguins is nearly unbearable.

 

Occasionally the narration lapses into what is distinctly human territory with its musing about love and despair. While it may be inaccurate to assign grief to a keening bird, March does remind us that it's not all love-and-happy-babies-below-zero: Penguins of all ages don't make it. The death scenes are tastefully rendered, though the least explicit -- an egg that rolls free of its warm berth -- is the most heartbreaking.

 

Mostly, though, the narration provides welcome information that details the penguins' incredible fortitude and feats -- all to perpetuate another generation of birds to undertake the same travails -- though no amount of research and speculation from the higher orders can ever really explain why. Why do these bizarre flightless creatures set up camp amidst Earth's harshest conditions? Perhaps simply because they can -- and that's a grand thing worth documenting.

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