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March of the Penguins

(2005) *** G
84 min. Warner Independent Pictures. Director: Luc Jacquet. Cast: Charles Berling.

Luc Jacquet's March of the Penguins restores faith in truth in advertising, for that's exactly what you get in this amiable nature documentary: emperor penguins enacting an age-old cycle of walking, mating, and walking some more. Of course, this all takes place in Antarctica (which—if you haven't heard—is one of nature's harshest climates), so these magnificent little beasts have their work cut out for them.

The herd thins as the penguins strive not only to survive bitter wind chill, but shelter their eggs and, eventually, their newborn charges at all costs. Papa penguins hold out against storms in hopeful anticipation that their mates will return, before it's too late, from an adjunct journey to collect much-needed food. As presented here, the penguins' behavior is more than instinctive: it's an expression of romantic longing and parental love, a tricky line to draw with no scientific proof.

Jacquet's circumstantial "evidence" can be thought-provoking, such as a scene in which a penguin mother who loses her child appears to freak out (animal instinct or animal emotion?). But the narration—with its focus on humanizing the penguins and dumbing down the science—can be counter-productive, rendering the penguins opaque. In one instance, Jacquet gives no context to explain the sequence in which the parents do nothing to protect their children from predators (um, tough love?).

This G-rated charmer will make a guiltless and educational outing for parents of grade-schoolers, and cinematographers Laurent Chalet and Jérôme Maison capture lovely nature photography of wide vistas and, in close-up detail, the penguins' fine feathers. That said, it's equally true that TV does this sort of thing just as well, if not better: March of the Penguins doesn't have the big-screen majesty and breadth of event-picture Winged Migration.

The domestic release of La marche de l'empereur has made significant changes, purging penguin-P.O.V. narration and moony songs in favor of a traditional score and the velvet third-person narration of Morgan Freeman. I'm usually very opposed to recutting a director's initial vision, but I think we may have dodged a bullet here—as a relatively straight-forward accounting of one of nature's miraculous routines, March of the Penguins works quite nicely, even if it does tenaciously anthropomorphize the cute, wee wobblers.

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