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MOVIES: The Icemen Cometh

"March of the Penguins" follows a troop of hard-beaked survivors.

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For the three summer months, the emperor is a true bird of the sea, zipping like an underwater rocket from krill to prawn, feasting on the best sushi on earth while trying to avoid the occasional pair of sea lion jaws. But it's the rest of the year, during the arduous mating season, that's the focus of this documentary. At the start of winter, emerging from their ice holes, the emperors proceed in their shuffling penguin walk 70 miles to their breeding ground, where they are safer from predators and thin ice.

Once paired off, mom and pop penguin wait for the coming egg, switching guardianship when it arrives so the female can head back to the ocean to eat. Dad hatches the egg, sheltering it through heavy storms and a few days of potential starvation before mom gets back with a gullet full of warm food. And so the pair trade off, again and again, one going back to the ocean for food while the other stands guard.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that "March of the Penguins" is doing so well at the box office. The drama that unfolds during these dangerous months is a tad more life-affirming than how Daisy gets the Duke boys out of jail. The emperors' story is certainly a gripping one, and the animals are anthropomorphized extensively by the director through his narrator, Morgan Freeman. This is understandable to some degree, considering the upright posture of the penguins on land, which gives their flock behavior and determination against extreme weather conditions an eerie, humanlike composure.

That said, this is not a total Disneyfication of a nature film. If anything, "March" offers a refreshing, realistic view of these animals in contrast to their usual depictions as goofy cartoon birds in tuxedos. If you are thinking about taking a young person, know that Jacquet has included all the realities of life and death on the ice, but the sadder scenes are not lingered on. (Parents might have some explaining to do, however, the next time they decide to cook eggs for breakfast.)

Freeman's narrative is sober and reverential, which complements the natural story arc in the annual lives of these birds. The only problem is when the penguins do things that appear out of sync with the logic and feelings the filmmakers would have them possess. Why, for instance, do the female penguins gang up on a grieving female who tries to steal another's chick yet stand around in apparent unconcern when a clumsy and smaller predatory bird attacks these same offspring? There are answers, surely, but they are unavailable.

During much of the film I thought of "Grizzly Man," Werner Herzog's upcoming documentary on the grizzly documentarian Timothy Treadwell. That film poignantly addresses the opposing viewpoints of animals as cuddly friends of the earth and mindless forces of nature. "March" assumes the former. It has its moments of sentimentality, but it succeeds as an uncomplicated testament to the courage of our fellow animals and the fortitude of a much misrepresented bird. (G) **** S



Playing at Commonwealth 20, Regal Short Pump 14, Regal Virginia Center 20, Regal Westhampton Cinema 2, and Chesterfield Towne Center. Check theaters for show times.



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