Tuxedo junction

‘March of the Penguins’ waddles into theaters

Credit: Beth Rankin

The latest trend in the modern documentary has been to tackle the world’s most controversial issues: President Bush and Sept. 11 (Fahrenheit 9/11), the fast food industry (Super Size Me), and now, perhaps the most shocking of all topics: penguins.

March of the Penguins, a documentary written and directed by Luc Jacquet, chronicles the births and violent, tear-jerking deaths of one of the world’s most beloved, cute and cuddly creatures.

No longer just a villain in Batman, the penguin is up front and center in this appropriately titled documentary.

Perhaps trying to improve on his failed portrayal of a God-like figure (see Bruce Almighty), Morgan Freeman takes on the role of the omniscient narrator and makes this National Geographic film as riveting as The Shawshank Redemption. A Shawshank Redemption with penguins.

The film opens with breathtaking views of Antarctic icescapes, adorned with glaciers, snow drifts and, of course, our tuxedo-suited stars. They are on their way to their mating grounds, a place where they return each year to produce a single, solitary chick.

But they face trials and tribulations along their way, including the bitter cold of the Antarctic winter, seals and strange birds, which Freeman neglected to identify.

Though the birds’ primary habitat is in the water, this journey must be completed above the ice; the penguins must waddle and slide their way from the sea to their birthplace.

Once the penguins have reached the breeding grounds, they search long and hard for their mates. Freeman explains that the penguins are monogamous creatures — but only for a year. After mating season is over and done with, “all bets are off.”

Due to the unequal ratio of females to males, there are many “cat fights,” as penguin females slap and peck their way into their man’s hearts (think Courtney Love). The males stand back and observe the ruckus, waiting for the eventual winner, their future mate.

After an extended courtship period, we are finally allowed to see the reason for this entire trek: the egg.

The production of the egg takes more than one-third of the female’s body weight. After laying her egg, she must return to the ocean and eat an obscene amount of fish and other aquatic goodies. But first, she must pass the egg to her male counterpart. He will keep the egg warm and safe until it hatches and the female returns with food — no deadbeat dads at the South Pole.

Transferring the egg is not as easy as it seems; exposure to the cold for more than a few seconds causes the egg to freeze and crack open, exposing the crystallized albumen of the unhatched egg to the elements.

This drives home the movie’s central theme: Penguins dying is, in fact, sad.

We are given more examples of this as we watch mother penguins being snatched into the mouths of hungry seals, aged male penguins dying of starvation, slumping into cuddly heaps in the cold snow, and fluffy penguin chicks being torn into shreds by tertiary consumers.

The females return to the breeding grounds with food for their young, taking their turn as caretaker and allowing the males, who have gone without food for nearly four months, to return to the sea and feed their impoverished bellies. The mother and child form an extremely powerful bond, which is shown when some chicks die in a winter storm.

One bereaved mother, driven insane by her loss, attempts to “chicknap” a neighbor’s spawn, which proves once again that penguins are cute and it’s sad when bad things happen to them.

The chicks continue growing, becoming cuter with each pitter-pat of their adorable, perky, precious, lovable, huggable, dainty, fetching, winsome, darling, quaint, endearing feet.

In the end, this film is a delightful montage of astonishing scenery, an exquisite score and main characters that you never grow tired of.

As Morgan Freeman put it, “In the harshest place on Earth, love finds a way.”

Contact copy desk chief Katie Mallady at [email protected] and forum editor Steve Schirra at [email protected].