Cold cuts 

A review of March of the Penguins

click to enlarge Baby penguins: fat, fuzzy and ridiculously cute.
  • Baby penguins: fat, fuzzy and ridiculously cute.

*March of the Penguins (G)
Kimball's Twin Peak

At the end of March of the Penguins, a movie as refreshing as a jumbo ice cream cone on a 99-degree Sunday afternoon, my son leaned over and said, "I want a baby penguin coat."

Don't get bent out of shape, all you animal-protection types out there. He didn't mean he wanted to skin a baby penguin; he just wanted a furry brown coat as soft as the baby Emperor penguin coats look in this awe-inspiring documentary about the reproductive habits of a remarkable tribe of birds native to the harsh environment of Antarctica.

French director Luc Jacquet and his cinematographers, Laurent Chalet and Jrme Maison, suffered -80 temperatures and violent winter windstorms to bring us this footage from a year in the lifecycle of the Emperor penguin. Not only have they made a fascinating film; it's crossed into the mainstream of summer releases, a remarkable feat for a documentary of any kind.

Actor Morgan Freeman provides the narration for Penguins' American version, sounding grandfatherly and wise, if a bit repetitive.

"This is a love story," Freeman tells us in the opening moments, a statement that might drive cynics away but shouldn't. Penguins avoids smarmy anthropomorphism, showing us bitter truths about survival as the birds defy all odds to mate, reproduce and send their offspring into this wide, icy homeland.

The cycle begins with the march of the male penguins from the sea to their permanently frozen nesting grounds some 70 miles inland. When they grow tired of walking (waddling, really), they flop down on their engorged white bellies, slipping 'n sliding to propel themselves across the ice. Finally, they reach the nesting grounds and the waiting females. Each male chooses one partner from among thousands.

They nuzzle and click beaks. We think we're going to see some penguin-on-penguin action, but the photographers do a slow fade instead, leading up to the moment and cutting to the cigarette afterward (actually puffs of condensed penguin breath in the frigid air).

A few months later, eggs are laid, then carefully transferred from the female's skin flap just above her feet to a similar spot above the male's craggy claws. The dads take over egg-sitting duty while the mothers waddle and slip 'n slide back to the sea to gather food.

The fathers withstand the long, dark winter with no food, protecting their offspring from the cold. A moment when an egg rolls out of one's protective pouch onto the frozen tundra is heart-stopping. In seconds, it is frozen solid and its contents dead.

Chicks emerge from the eggs awkward, big-eyed and hungry, and the mothers return in time to feed them from their stuffed craws. This time the fathers march away to feed themselves, and the nursery months ensue. The mothers nurse their fuzzy chicks, losing some to the elements, some to predators.

One of Penguins' most stunning scenes shows an aggrieved mother, who's lost her chick, trying to steal another's. She's stopped by the other females in a show of maternal solidarity.

The fathers return, amazingly finding their mates and babies amid the huge throng, and for a brief time the family is together before each of its members goes off on his or her own way.

Exquisitely shot, especially in close-up, the Emperor penguins come off as majestic birds. Short (80 minutes) and to the point, this is a stimulating foray for a hot summer's day, a detour to Antarctica and the fascinating territory of, well, what else can we call it but penguin love?

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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