'Penguins': Cold but Lovable

"March of the Penguins" is most effective when French documentarian Luc Jacquet eschews cute commentary and lets the birds be. (By Jerome Maison -- Bonne Pioche Productions-alliance De Production Cinematographique)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 1, 2005

"I go for penguins," Lyle Lovett famously sang. "Oh Lord, I go for penguins."

And really, who doesn't? In "March of the Penguins," French documentarian Luc Jacquet has set his sights on perhaps the most charismatic, lovable and stylish species on the planet. Following a clan of emperor penguins as they make a perilous journey of hundreds of miles across Antarctica in order to breed and raise their young, Jacquet has made an absorbing, visually spectacular film, which, in the tradition of documentaries such as the recent "Winged Migration," takes the audience so close to the subjects that we can count nearly every feather on their beguiling heads.

If "March of the Penguins" too often succumbs to gratuitous, sentimentalized speculation to tweak the audience's emotions, the tendency is understandable; it's difficult to imagine animals more amenable to anthropomorphism than a bunch of four-foot-tall birds who, when they hunch over together on the ice, resemble a convention of retired Borsht Belt comedians.

Still, "March of the Penguins" is at its best when it dispenses with cute commentary and simply relates the facts. As explained by narrator Morgan Freeman, every March the penguins set off for their breeding ground to mate, lay and hatch their eggs, and nurture their young. It's an unimaginably tough nine-month endeavor involving several long journeys made almost entirely on foot (when they're not sliding on their ample bellies), against subfreezing cold temperatures and biting winds and, as the months pass, on the brink of starvation. As shamelessly manipulative as it is informative, "March of the Penguins" follows its clan all the way through, documenting not only the miracle of their mating rituals and chick rearing, but the loss of life along the way.

The film's breathtaking photography, as well as its New Agey score (reportedly a marked improvement over the original French music) and Freeman's warm, empathic narration, make "March of the Penguins" a classic nature film, one whose appeal is exponentially heightened by the inherent charm of its leading players. As they waddle and slide, soar in graceful mating dances and doggedly risk their lives to feed their adorably fuzzy young, these magnificent animals prove to be the perfect subjects, all the more so for the dramatically ice-bound backdrop nature has provided them.

But it's just that natural world that is Jacquet's downfall when he needlessly tries to inject it with even more dramatic tension. At one point he films a leopard seal hunting for female penguins, and the animal is portrayed as such a "Jaws"-like beast that it might make you rethink the whole clubbing issue. Most problematic, however, is the script, which can't resist such pronouncements as "this is a story of survival, but mostly of love" and "the loss is unbearable." At one point, Freeman authoritatively describes the Antarctic winter as doing "everything in its power" to destroy the penguins' eggs. (Aren't seasons pretty much neutral on the whole penguin-egg issue?)

Throughout "March of the Penguins," Jacquet and co-writers Michel Fessler and Jordan Roberts ascribe human emotions to their subjects, suggesting that what is admittedly an extraordinary example of Darwinian genius is somehow guided by such motivations as love, jealousy, ambivalence and grief. After all, the chorus of Lovett's song was "Penguins are so sensitive."

Maybe, maybe not. But "March of the Penguins" would be just as stunning and emotionally involving without such poetic license; in fact, it might well be more effective if viewers were allowed simply to observe how the penguins' mysterious, often poetic, habits rhyme with their own. It doesn't take a screenwriter, for example, to point out the uncanny fact that, when two parent penguins perform a neck-curving pas de deux above their tiny chick, they resemble nothing so much as a perfect heart.

March of the Penguins (80 minutes, at area theaters) is rated G.

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