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March of the Penguins

This astounding documentary follows a year in the life of Antarctica’s Emperor penguins, an avian community that survives in the world’s harshest habitat. The incredible footage includes extreme close-ups that show every feather of the penguins’ dense fluff, a view of the interior of a feeding hatchling’s mouth, and even a scene where a seal catches a penguin in water that is under a layer of thick, winter ice. This achievement was possible because a team of photographers set up camp in Antarctica near the birds for a full year and filmed as the colony became completely comfortable with their presence.

The narrator is Morgan Freeman in terrific voice – all those British voiceover specialists with their snotty accents can eat their hearts out – even though he sentimentally informs us that “This is a story about love” among “stalwart souls” who brave the ice. (I nearly retched up my popcorn after that comment). Part of the temptation to lapse into anthropomorphic musings is that the males and females really do look like lovers when they cuddle together, but I suspect the main reason we assign human attributes to penguins is that they’re so damn cute. They have that famous lopsided walk, they slide through snowfields on their plump bellies, and the babies are overwhelmingly adorable with their little black eyes, and round, fluffy little heads. You may find yourself yearning to adopt a baby penguin, against all reason and common sense.

Yet it’s not really a love story at all. These penguins are fascinating because their tenacious quest to reproduce embodies the universal instinct for survival, and the film brings that quest to life. It’s intense Darwinian drama, never mind the occasional smarmy speeches. The first shot is a long panorama of toddling figures dwarfed against towering cliffs of blue ice and snow. These are the intrepid males, laboriously walking and sliding more than 70 miles from the ocean shoreline to their remote mating and nursery site. The journey is impressive, the average temperature is –58 degrees Fahrenheit, and the subsequent teamwork of the couples that struggle to keep eggs and youngsters alive during the cruel winter is awesome.

A female lays one egg that must be delicately and cautiously transferred to her mate who will balance it on top of his feet to keep it warm until hatching, but there’s no food at the inland nursery. Half-starved males and females must take turns making the laborious journey back to the ocean for nourishment during the months when eggs and hatchlings need constant care from at least one parent. We watch the pairs of loyal, monogamous parents stoically endure predators, blizzards, and near-starvation but many of their infants die anyway. In one devastating scene, a mother raises her beak to honk and wail inconsolably over her frozen offspring’s body then tries to steal another baby as a replacement. She’s an extreme case but penguins’ devotion to their youngsters is undeniable.

It’s heartrending to witness occasions when their tremendous parental investment goes to waste but it’s joyous to see the fledglings that survive their first winter slide into the ocean for their very first swim. A new generation is launched as it has been for hundreds of thousands of years. Experience these exceptional animals.