Miracle on Ice

The life of the emperor penguin isn't easy, but it might make yours seem better.

March of the Penguins Cedar Lee Theatre
Jacquet captures penguin life as few have seen it - before.
Jacquet captures penguin life as few have seen it before.
If you're short on reasons to be grateful these days, look no further than March of the Penguins, the astonishing documentary from first-time director Luc Jacquet. Hard times may have befallen you, but at least you are not a penguin, an animal destined to repeat a devastating sequence of events nine months out of every year in the effort to reproduce.

Singles bars may depress you, but you can always head for the car. The male emperor penguin, on the other hand, passes four months in the coldest, driest, darkest, and windiest climate on earth, where temperatures can fall to 100 degrees below zero and winds can blow at 100 miles per hour, and he does it with neither food nor shelter. Then, after 125 days, when the egg he has so carefully guarded hatches, the father coughs up a meal, a "milky liquid" he has stored in a fold in his throat, so that the chick might survive until the mother returns with provisions.

Penguins are notorious for having it rough, and Jacquet wastes little time in getting to the conflict. He begins the film in March, the end of the Antarctic summer, and follows the penguins as they begin their trek 70 miles south to their breeding grounds. Like so much in this visually gorgeous movie, marching penguins are something to see: a line of black and white waddlers, tilting precariously to either side as they lug their tremendous bulk across the ice. When they tire of that means of propulsion, they flop onto their silky bellies and kick themselves forward, as though they were swimming on land. And they don't stop until they get there, traveling up to a week without rest.

There are two reasons to see March of the Penguins: the penguins and the cinematography. The penguins are hilarious and handsome and heartrending, hundreds of tubby butlers wobbling out their rugged destinies. Perhaps because the penguins are unaccustomed to human beings, Jacquet was able to get right up to them, giving us stunning close-ups of their beaks, eyes, feathers, and talony toes. Even in the heart of the winter storms, Jacquet is there, filming the birds as they form a giant huddle, trading places in order to distribute the best positions evenly. (Heaven knows how they work that out.)

The cinematography, for its part, is nature documentation at its most spectacular. Few of us are likely to experience the grandeur of Antarctica firsthand, and Jacquet is generous with his camera, opening with crystalline shots of white ice and azure water, everything shimmering and stark and almost modernist in its sleekness of design, and giving us shots from every vantage point -- long, short, and in-between.

Where March of the Penguins falters is in the voice-over, read by Morgan Freeman in the American edition of the film. He speaks in the deep, stentorian tones of the All-Knowing Nature Narrator, which isn't too bad, but he could have dialed it back a bit.

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