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March of the Penguins

Regarding the life of emperor penguins: there's got to be a better way.

Every year, for either hundreds or thousands of years depending on which part of the narrative you listen to, the emperor penguins in Antarctica leave the oceans and make an arduous trek across the ice to their breeding ground. After mating, the males and females take turns walking back to the ocean to eat and sometimes predators get them. That's really about it. It's a harsh life, but at least there are cute baby penguins.

Not that March of the Penguins offers any alternatives; instead, it seeks to shed a soft amber light on the bleak cold that is the penguin mating season. In its original French version (called The Emperor's Journey -- American audiences apparently can't make the symbolic leap), writer/director Luc Jacquet had the penguins even speak, telling their story in an immediate, personal way to get audiences to go "awwwww..."

Audiences still will, at least for the first twenty minutes or so. We like penguins. And we like Morgan Freeman, who now provides all the narration, written by Jordan Roberts. Freeman's warm tones promise us that this is a story about love, but Roberts really doesn't want to go all out and make this cute. Stuck with footage that clearly wants to tell a type of family drama, Roberts reverts to being dryly scientific whenever things veer into heartwarming.

The result fits more into what National Geographic would want, and they're behind the American release. But it also leaves the film with a split personality, alternately anthropomorphizing penguins when the scenes leave no choice, but often admitting we don't know a single thing about their motivations.

Because the scenes have been cut for a different type of narration, Freeman often ends up dropping tantalizing tidbits of information without being able to explain them. The scene has moved on, and an audience might just be wondering - wait a minute, how do these penguins manage to save some sort of nutritional fluid for their newborns after months of not eating? Check your local library.

Too often our knowledge is limited to what can be observed, and that's often where the English narration goes into mawkishness. If a penguin looks sad, Freeman comments upon it, forgetting that he has already said we have no real way of knowing. Love finds a way, perhaps, but with penguins it really could just be a biological imperative.

Since so much of this cycle involves the titular march back and forth with no variation, it would have been nice to have something - anything - new happen. What does the larger community do? Michel didn't shoot it, so Roberts can't script it.

As a result, March of the Penguins is interesting but not particularly absorbing. Its G rating may attract a lot of families, but be warned that it will spark long stretches of restlessness among your young ones. I suspect The Emperor's March would have been more effective for them.


Derek McCaw

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