Hippo Manchester
July 28, 2005

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March of the Penguins (G)
By Amy Diaz

As if there were any doubt, Morgan Freeman and about 90 minutes of beautiful nature footage prove that penguins are A-dorable in March of the Penguins.

Sure, this movie is also informational in the way it explains the emperor penguin’s life cycle. And it probably at least doubles, maybe even quadruples, the amount of information I have about Antarctica. But try this sort of people-free tale about salmon (which also return to the same place every year to breed) and the story wouldn’t be quite so compelling. Penguins have that comical quack, the classy black-and-white feathers (with just a hint of sunshiney yellow around the neck) and the biped waddle. Cute and funny, penguins seem made for movie stardom.

Freeman, so elegant, gives a warm but not syrupy reading of the text, which is neither exciting nor too precise. (Penguins seldom do anything so harsh as “die,” but often fade away into the snow.) The movie begins near the end of the Antarctic summer (February), with the penguins heading to their mating grounds some 70 miles from the sea (thus ensuring that next summer their breeding grounds won’t crack).  We see them marching, often single-file, like an army of tiny waiters, until they reach their snowy singles spot. There, the penguins pair up for the season (only one male to one female for the year) and get to the penguin nookie. Eventually, an egg is produced. The female must, without harming the egg or allowing it too many moments in the frigid air, pass the egg to the male, who keeps it warm while the female heads back to the sea to get food. The penguins’ pass off happens again when the females return to find, if they’re lucky, their mates sheltering a newly hatched chick. She feeds and he leaves, first teaching his offspring the sound of his squawks so father and child can recognize each other when he returns. The cycle continues, with parents handing off care of their fragile chick to each other and returning to the sea for food, until summer, when the parents return to the sea on their own and the chicks take their first swims and learn to feed themselves.

The camera work of the documentary is breathtaking — the whites and blues of the penguins’ world seem as beautiful as they are unforgiving. We see the penguins close up enough to see their eyes blink, to see them gaze down at their offspring  and to see them anguish (or something that looks very much like anguish) when a chick is killed by predators or the elements. The blend of strong narration and excellent camera work does what a documentary like this must do, it turns the penguins into characters (moms, dads, babies) that we, against reason, will sympathize with. It’s manipulative, but done artfully enough that I didn’t mind. The movie is relatively straight forward about showing (if not stating) what happens in nature, namely that penguins (even mom-penguins and dad-penguins, even baby-penguins) die.

Without being too ham-fisted about either the circle of life or the cuteness of its subjects, March of the Penguins is a lovely, enjoyable film.