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Friday, July 1, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Movie Review

"March of the Penguins" explores the lives of Antarctic charmers

Seattle Times theater critic

Tired of human movie stars, with their overhyped romances and breakups, their arrests and trials, their mindless talk-show chitchat?

Maybe it's time for new screen idols. And here they come, in their elegant black and white plumage, trudging along the ice in a majestic waddle like a procession of formal maitre d's. They don't have press agents or makeup people. And just by going about their business — finding mates, hatching eggs, hunting food in one of the harshest terrains on Earth — they are riveting.

The stars of "March of the Penguins," the wonderful new nature documentary by French filmmaker Luc Jacquet, are exotic, funny, glorious birds. And this 80-minute movie, narrated by actor Morgan Freeman in comforting basso tones, should trigger a wave of penguin frenzy — and perhaps more awareness that these birds (like many other species) are endangered by global warming.

Jacquet and his team spent a year filming in Antarctica, where it can get down to 128 degrees below zero. With great difficulty, but also transcendent beauty, they have captured for the first time on celluloid the dramatic life cycle of these magnificent creatures, which may reach heights of 4 feet tall.

Movie review 4 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"March of the Penguins," a documentary narrated by Morgan Freeman. Directed by Luc Jacquet, narration written by Jordan Roberts. 80 minutes. Rated G. Egyptian.

The movie focuses on a colony of hundreds of emperors (one of 17 species of penguins around the world) returning to their frozen breeding ground in the Geological Headland Archipelago colony in Adelie, Antarctica, to renew a cycle they'll repeat every year. (Penguins have a life span of 20-some years, if they're lucky.)

Against a spectacular backdrop of opalescent bluish-white ice walls and frigid snowfields, the nearly identical-looking male and female penguins waddle and tummy-toboggan into an enormous huddle (the equivalent of an outdoor singles bar scene for birds).

For Darwinian reasons, the emperors are picky about who they hook up with. But once the match is made, soulful expressions of fondness are not unusual. The mates stand puffy-white belly to belly. They press beaks. They rest their sleek black heads (with gorgeous gold markings) on each other's shoulders. They twitter and trumpet, memorizing a partner's unique song for later recognition. (They all look alike to each other, too.)

The film is rather discreet about penguin sex. But once an egg appears, the major drama starts. The male must shield it under his plumage against the cold while his mate joins a long penguin parade to the sea to seek food. She'll tromp for 70 miles, then dive through ice holes into the sea, to scarf up a months-long supply of fish. (The emperors are great swimmers, but they don't fly.)

Meanwhile, back at the breeding ground, blizzards rage and many eggs freeze and die. But the surviving eggs soon yield moppet penguins, gray furballs with circus-clown faces. Cute? An emperor penguin taking his first roly-poly steps is adorable.

The mothers return with food for the chicks, then the hungry fathers embark on that same long journey to feed in the sea. It's a rugged but sensible rotating parent system, enforced by instinct and necessity.

Though leisurely paced, "March of the Penguins" is definitely kid-friendly. There is a bit of violence though: a nasty penguin fight, and the ravages of brutal weather and predators. One of the film's sadder sights is of a bereft mother, braying her anguish and trying to steal another penguin's chick to replace her dead one.

But "March of the Penguins" is mostly upbeat, visually stunning and in awe of the resiliency and loyalty of its subjects.

The original narration in French reportedly has actors "playing" penguin characters, who coo sweet nothings to one another. Thank goodness we get a less-romanticized narration in English. Emperor penguins are not just like us, or any other creature you can name — which is why they're so utterly fascinating.

Misha Berson:

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company




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