Penguins have registered for a century as the premier deadpan farceurs of the animal kingdom: Buster Keatons to the Charlie Chaplins who are chimpanzees. The low-slung waddle of their torpedo bodies and shimmy of their water-wings blend improbably with necks that curve and extend the reach of their beak-with-bullet heads. Their oddly dignified air can be irresistibly uproarious.
So March of the Penguins comes as a wonderful surprise. This sentiment-filled yet unsentimental testament to animal nature records the annual trek of the emperor penguins to their breeding ground in the Antarctic waste, where the ice is thick enough to carry all their tribe. Seeing their urge to mate and create families is not merely charming or touching, but engulfing and bracing.
At the start of winter they pop out of the sea as if shot by cannon. Then, as if directed by John Ford or David Lean, they file across the vast glacial expanse one by one, creating their own horizon lines of heroism. It's impossible to tell male from female, but their long white torsos and orange-flecked crowns give them a unisex glamour. When they reach their destination the male emits a musical bray and waits for a female to join him in a duet.
It becomes their song in the most direct sense: it enables them to recognize each other among otherwise identical birds, and will enable their offspring to recognize its parents. The lovers embrace, bosom to bosom, then remain rapturously stationary. The director, Luc Jacquet, withholds the details of their lovemaking, but conveys the mysterious sensuality of their bonding. It sustains the couple through recurring, lengthy periods of fasting and separation.
The movie pays tribute to sexual equality and to each gender's agility and strength of character. The male and female take turns sacrificing their body weight as one stands still to protect the egg and later the chick in an incubation flap, and the other journeys to the sea to gather nourishment for the youngster. The parents gingerly swap their offspring in a back-and-forth process that repeats until the chicks are big enough to form a pack. It's as if they're bobbing for apples with their feet.
Death is the penalty for losing this intricately choreographed game - an egg or a young chick can't survive a few seconds unprotected in the cold. Jacquet elicits such strong identification with these doughty birds that art-house audiences trained to resist anthropomorphism might involuntarily recoil from this film's harrowing demonstration of penguin mourning.
Most of us, though, will revel in the penguins' individual and group valor. When the males
must face a crippling blizzard, they merge into a single mass, and periodically swap the chilliest positions on the rim. When a grieving mother tries to steal another's child, the other mothers prevent any theft.
Morgan Freeman gives supple voice to the spare narration. Sometimes the voice-over is too spare: it takes a moment to identify the penguins' sea-borne attackers as leopard seals, but never spells out that the big ugly birds who feast on live chicks are giant petrels.
Still, this film's understated declaration of marital and parental dependence proves eloquent and stirring. Its message resounds all the more deeply because director Jacquet is so restrained. His theme is ice-crystal clear: It takes a rookery to raise a child.
March of the Penguins
Documentary by Luc Jacquet
Narrated by Morgan Freeman
Released by Warner Independent
Time 80 minutes
SUN SCORE **** (4 STARS)