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Movie Review ****

A Tale of Love, Life, and Death in the Antarctic

By Kelley Rivoire

March of the Penguins

Directed by Luc Jacquet

Narration written by Jordan Roberts

Narrated by Morgan Freeman

Rated G

Environmentalists should take note: the most convincing, if unwitting, advocates for their cause may be the stars of March of the Penguins. Capturing a range of stunning images from the light-hearted, with penguins coasting along the ice on their bellies, to the majestic, with a seemingly infinite line of penguins marching to the sea amid jagged walls of ice, this documentary surely pulls at the heartstrings of all who watch it.

Directed by a Frenchman with a scientific background, the film chronicles the perilous, yet touching, mating ritual of the emperor penguins. During the annual ritual, the penguins embark on a trek back and forth across a numbingly frigid expanse of the Antarctic and to the verge of starvation. All this effort produces just one chick, which may or may not survive, for each pair of penguins. In each mating season, the mother and father alternate between journeying as far as 70 miles each way to the sea for food and taking care of the egg or newly-hatched chick in the inland colony, always returning to their mates. It is a startlingly anthropomorphic relationship — “in the harshest place on earth, love finds a way,” the film’s advertising claims.

March of the Penguins succeeds where most documentaries fail: in maintaining the tenuous balance between displaying a stream of aesthetically appealing but unexplained images, and rattling off a list of nothing more than scientific jargon. The narration, voiced by Morgan Freeman, focuses on the humanlike behavior of the penguins, avoiding scientific names and detailed numerical data. This story-like style helps the film grab and hold the attention of everyone from child to senior, scientist to layman.

While sentimental in both narration and presentation, the film does not shy away from presenting the inevitable harshness of the Antarctic — not every egg survives the delicate transfer over the ice from the mother who produced it to the father who will keep it warm, and not every chick lives through the frigid temperatures and evades its predators.

The cinematography, the result of one year of work and over 120 hours of images, is nothing short of breathtaking. Close-up shots detail the texture of the feathers, under which the eggs and young chicks bury themselves to avoid the cold; distant overhead shots show the vastness of an ethereal Antarctic; and underwater images reveal the speed and grace of the penguin in its motions beneath the land. Only during the end credits, without a doubt worth staying in the theater to watch, do we see those who made the documentary possible: the cameramen, who withstood 100 mile per hour winds and temperatures below zero degrees Fahrenheit, who were unable to see any of their images prior to their return to France. The score, composed by Alex Wurman, serves as a companion to the imagery with lyrical flute solos, the soft plucking of harp strings, and graceful melodies sweeping through strings and piano.

The film dazzles with images that proffer any number of reactions. One moment, one might smile at the cute, but not quite kitsch, groups of young penguins at play; the next, perhaps become incredulous at the thought of the male penguin, who, while protecting the egg, forgoes food for more than four months; the next, perhaps mourn the loss of a new life. March of the Penguins is a documentary from which the audience leaves with not only facts, but also with an understanding of the remarkable species that annually performs this devoted mating ritual in the depths of the Antarctic.

‘March of the Penguins’ is playing at Loews on Church Street in Harvard Square.