- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2005

Never mind the hubbub over Batman, Herbie the Love Bug and Anakin Skywalker — this summer belongs to the penguin.

First, a quartet of the tuxedo-clad creatures steals the show in “Madagascar,” and now a gorgeous new documentary captures the life cycle of the emperor penguin.

“March of the Penguins” brings us so up close and personal to these birds that we hang on their every victory and failure.

And fail they do.

The creatures exist in the most punishing environment imaginable — the icy landscapes of Antarctica — and survive by a combination of guile and natural selection that must be seen to be believed.

We’re led into the penguins’ journey by Morgan Freeman’s assuring voice, though even without narration, their odyssey would be stirring.

Every winter, a group of emperor penguins begins a harrowing march, waddling — or, sometimes, skidding along on their bellies — single file toward their traditional breeding ground.

Along the way, they endure temperatures so low and winds so strong that it makes one shiver just watching. Not all the penguins survive. Those that do enter into monogamous relationships for the mating season, bonding with all the romantic gravitas of a Hanks-and-Ryan two-hankie weeper.

It’s here that the film veers into the cuddly world of a Disney featurette. Humanizing penguins might be a smart stab at general audiences, but it diminishes their remarkable journey, as well as the craft of the assembled filmmakers.

The on-screen deaths are suggested with more delicacy, saddening us without letting us lose the big picture that director Luc Jacquet so skillfully constructs. It’s the circle of life, and cry as we might, it’s simply nature running its course.

The film’s rich detail is even more compelling than the stark beauty captured by the unmannered camera work. Penguins teach their offspring a unique song so they can identify their young in the weeks to come. And the sight of a female penguin passing a delicate egg to her mate for protection is as nail-biting as the disarming of a time bomb. Should the egg endure any extended exposure — we’re talking seconds — to the elements, the young penguin within will die.

Even at 80 minutes, “Penguins” feels a stretch too long — perhaps an hour would have been the ideal length for those not enamored of Discovery Channel-type theatrics.

We’ve always had a soft spot for penguins, and why not? These flightless birds scamper adorably across the ice, their bodies a luminous sheen of black and white feathers. “March of the Penguins” does more than justify our affections. It reveals the heroic lengths to which penguins will go to produce future generations.

***

TITLE: “March of the Penguins”

RATING: G

CREDITS: Directed by Luc Jacquet. Narration by Morgan Freeman. Cinematography by Laurent Chalet and Jerome Maison.

RUNNING TIME: 80 minutes

WEB SITE: https://wip.warnerbros.com/marchofthepenguins

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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