French documentarian Luc Jacquet casts the annual breeding migration of Antarctica's emperor penguins as an operatic struggle between stoic every-birds and the cruel gods of wind, ice and 24-hour darkness who test their battered but steadfast souls. Frankly, they don't need the hard sell: The penguins' matter-of-fact victory over some of the Earth's most punishing conditions is astonishing enough without the epic airs. The handsome emperors, some 3-foot-6 inches tall and weighing between 45 and 90 lbs. — much of it insulating blubber — are a model of evolutionary specialization. But the adaptations that make them living rockets underwater — dense, furlike feathers; flippers instead of wings; bodies that taper to sharp beaks at one end and short, pointed tails at the other — reduce them to looking like tubby, round-shouldered, tuxedo-clad gents on land, waddling with the comical concentration of a drunk trying to toe a straight line. Their reproductive cycle is a bizarre endurance test, a series of tasks, challenges and deprivations that could have been devised by a sadistic reality-show creator. Every year disparate colonies migrate en masse from their seaside habitats. Their destination — upon which different colonies converge almost simultaneously — is an inland rookery, far from predatory seals and orcas and situated on dense ice that stays frozen from March until January, when the chicks have matured. After months of bulking up, the penguins walk continuously, some as far as 70 miles; to rest their feet, they flop onto their plump bellies and slide across the ice. Once at the rookery, they pair off — emperor penguins are serial monogamists — and mate; females produce a single egg, losing some 30 percent of their body weight in the process, then pass the eggs off to their mates to brood. The females walk back to the sea and replenish their fat stores while the fasting males huddle against the brutal cold, eggs balanced atop their prehistoric-looking feet and shielded by a flap of skin. The parents trade off again after the eggs hatch, the now-scrawny males marching back to the sea to feed. Though shamelessly anthropomorphized though the third-person English-language narration delivered with an air of gentle gravitas by Morgan Freeman, the penguins may be better served by the U.S. version of the film, which abandons the French original's conceit of assigning them voices to wax poetical. Reservations aside, Jacquet's film is an extraordinary document of life at nature's extremes.
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- Released: 2005
- Rating: G
- Review: French documentarian Luc Jacquet casts the annual breeding migration of Antarctica's emperor penguins as an operatic struggle between stoic every-birds and the cruel gods of wind, ice and 24-hour darkness who test their battered but steadfast souls. Frankl… (more)