The male emperor penguin passes four months in the coldest, driest, darkest, windiest climate on earth, where temperatures can fall to 100 degrees below zero and winds can blow at 100 miles an hour, and he does it with neither food nor shelter. Then, after 125 days, when the egg he has so carefully guarded hatches, the father coughs up a meal, a "milky liquid" he has stored in a fold in his throat, so that the chick might survive until the mother returns with provisions.
Penguins are notorious for having it rough, and Jacquet wastes little time getting to the conflict. He begins the film in March, the end of the Antarctic summer, and follows the penguins as they begin their trek 70 miles south to their breeding ground. Like so much in this visually gorgeous movie, marching penguins are something to see: a line of black-and-white waddlers tilting precariously to either side as they lug their tremendous bulk across the ice. When they tire of that means of propulsion, they flop onto their silky bellies and kick themselves forward, as though they were swimming on land. And they don't stop until they get there, traveling up to a week without rest.
The two reasons to see March of the Penguins are the penguins and the cinematography. The penguins are hilarious and handsome and heart-wrenching, hundreds of tubby butlers wobbling out their rugged destinies. Perhaps because the penguins are unaccustomed to humans, Jacquet was able to get right up next to them, giving us stunning close-ups of their beaks, eyes, feathers and talony toes. Even in the heart of the winter storms, Jacquet is there, filming the birds as they form a giant huddle, trading places so as to evenly distribute the best positions. (Heaven knows how they work that out.)
The cinematography is nature documentation at its most spectacular. Few of us are likely to experience the grandeur of Antarctica firsthand, and Jacquet is generous with his camera, opening with crystalline shots of white ice and azure water, everything shimmering and stark and almost modernist in its sleekness. It hardly hurts that everything is either black, white or blue, with a hint of yellow (in the penguins' cheeks) and pink (in the setting sun). What a palate!
Where March of the Penguins falters is in Morgan Freeman's voiceover. (Apparently, in the French version the penguins were given voices.) Freeman speaks in the deep, stentorian tones of the All-Knowing Nature Narrator, and the script is riddled with melodrama. "This is a story about love," Freeman informs us. Maybe, but it might also be a story about need or compulsion. When one mother loses her chick to a storm, Freeman laments, "The loss is unbearable." It does seem so -- and that's exactly why we don't need to hear it from him.