Squaring a doc about penguins up against the likes of War Of The Worlds and Wedding Crashers might seem a bit bird-brained. But, like its flightless protagonists, March Of The Penguins triumphed over adversity. Bought by Warners from French helmer Luc Jacquet, it hauled $60 million (and counting) in ticket stubs Stateside, making it the season’s runaway sleeper smash.
So why did the Yanks go crazy for a cutesy nature show? There’s no explosions or CGI trickery, but this whimsical, intelligent film boasts plenty of big (avian) stars, spectacular visuals (check out the ghostly Southern lights flickering in the sky) and moments of raw emotional anguish. Filmed by Jacquet and his team over a year in punishing sub-zero temperatures, the penguins’ annual courtship ritual makes for fascinating viewing in itself, but at the film’s heart is a story of unconditional love that puts most fictional on-screen couplings to shame.
Having waddled, Chaplin-like, hundreds of miles to a breeding ground, the penguins select their mates and embark on a monogamous feat of endurance. While Dad looks after the egg, Mum makes the trek back to the sea for food. When she finally returns, Dad has to set off to stock up on food while Mum must bring up her vulnerable chick in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.
A soaring score and Morgan Freeman’s stately narration add some Hollywood gloss, but it’s the small, personal moments that make March such a pleasure: the comedy of penguins falling over while their mates coo in sympathy; the curving necks of a pair of lovers tracing a perfect heart shape; the agonising sadness of a helpless chick dying alone in the cold...
It’s a little coy and cosy in the way it deals with the more brutal aspects of the natural order (we’re told nasty birds eat the babies but never actually see it). But, while nowhere near the richness of Jacques Perrin’s Winged Migration, March Of The Penguins is a moving and tender celebration of ritual and romance.
A touch David-Attenborough-TV-special in places, but beautifully filmed and dripping with drama, joy and heartbreak.