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Why 'March of the Penguins' is summer's surprise hit
Media General News Service


August 01, 2005

Two-thirds of Americans say newspapers focus too much on bad news.

So, today I have words for gentle readers who are discouraged by the trials and tribulations of the human race. Those words are: emperor penguin.

It sounds improbable, but emperor penguins are this season's antidote to bad news and sweltering heat. There's something cool, literally, you can do to change your perspective. Step into a darkened, chilly theater and watch emperor penguins battle for survival in Antarctica.

"The March of the Penguins" is a French nature documentary, a movie without famous actors or any actors at all. It's a true reality show: penguins in the wild, on ice and underwater, for 80 minutes.

And it's the surprise hit of the summer. Last weekend, its first in national release, "March of the Penguins" was the nation's 10th biggest box office draw.

Just as Harry Potter's phenomenal success proves children still love to read, "March of the Penguins" affirms that people still care about the world beyond their noses and share a hunger for nature's mysteries.

The movie is about survival of the species played out against a vast white icescape. The images are stunning, especially the underwater photography. If only science class were this good.

Director Luc Jacquet, known in France for his nature and wildlife films, came to filmmaking after studying biology and animal behavior.

"My goal," he has said, "is to dig from the ice a story which has never seen the light of day for want of a teller. A true story, however extraordinary. A story repeated every winter, as it has been for hundreds of thousands of years."

"March" tugs at viewers' heartstrings as it follows nearly a year in the life of emperor penguins.

"In the harshest place on earth, love finds a way," narrator Morgan Freeman says. Maybe.

If not love, instinct drives these flightless birds. One after another, they pop onto the ice from deep in the ocean each winter and embark on a long trek across the frozen desert to their breeding ground. They walk by the hundreds, single file, step by step, through the most extreme weather. On a good day in Antarctica, the temperature is 58 degrees below zero. Freezing winds of 100 mph are common.

Penguins meet cute. They find each other in a courtship ritual that is part dance and part song. We learn they're monogamous for the breeding season and reunite several times by finding each other vocally. But they don't mate for life. Each year, they find a new partner.

In this G-rated movie, the penguins are preening and singing to each other and then the camera shifts, discreetly. Soon the female lays an egg - only one. We still don't know how penguins tell male from female. To us, they all look alike.

In a tricky ballet maneuver, the female transfers the egg to the male who will keep it safe and warm in a flap of skin above his webbed feet. If it drops, the egg will freeze and die. The female, who has been fasting, then begins the long walk back to the sea to find food. The male must keep the egg safe and warm during two months of sub-zero temperatures until it hatches.

The males work as a team, huddling together for protection against the frigid winds. The male now fasts while he incubates the egg. Again, one misstep and the egg will freeze and die.

The penguins manage to survive despite the odds. Leopard seals prey on penguins at sea. If a female gets eaten, Freeman says, two creatures will die, mother and chick, because she won't return to feed her young.

After the female eats her fill, she begins the trip back. If she dawdles, the newly hatched chick will starve. The male provides one regurgitated meal, but that's it.

This is complicated work. Viewers can't help identifying with the animals and being touched by the emotion they seem to feel. Penguins seem to grieve when they lose an egg and make sad cries. Some who've lost an egg will try to steal one, but the group won't allow it.

Male and female take turns making the journey to the ocean to feed while the other cares for the chick. Finally, the chicks begin their own trip to the sea. The cycle starts again.

In the theater, the credits roll and the lights come up to scattered applause.

"That'll cool you off," says a woman in the crowd that's moving into the summer heat.


Marsha Mercer is Washington bureau chief for Media General News Service.
E-mail mmercer(at)

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