Yes, Virginia, there really is a movie out there replete with all those details we film snobs so regularly and reliably pine for: great story, lovable characters, laughs, tears, nail-biting suspense and breathtaking visuals that don't look like they were assembled for credit at a midranked computer-animation school. The picture is the French-made documentary March of the Penguins, and if it stars a bunch of comically shuffling arctic waterfowl instead of alleged humans like Tom Cruise, then what of it? Just chalk it up as refreshing to see movie stars going after mates their own age for a change.
Representing a typical year in the time-honed reproductive cycle of Antarctica's emperor penguin, the film gives us a priceless front-row seat for a ritual that no human being quite understands, yet which encompasses the broad expanse of any creature's capabilities. Every winter, the finny inhabitants of this frigid region, responding to some instinctual inner voice, emerge from the sea and walk up to 70 miles to find a barely habitable communal mating ground. Once, there, they mill about like bowling pins on the make, gradually divvying themselves up into (temporarily) devoted pairs. Each couple then goes about producing a single egg whose successful hatching will be the focus of their being for the months to come.
Those months are marked by acts of intense maternal and paternal devotion, with each parent taking a turn caring for the youngster while the other makes the long walk back to the ocean to find food. Survival of the adults or their offspring is never assured as the cold winds blow hard and unforgiving. The movie confronts head-on the fragility of every penguin's existence: We learn by seeing that any attempted family could end up a victim of inferior child-rearing skills or plain rotten luck. If you can listen without sobbing to one of these distraught animals mourning for the frozen baby that lies lifeless at its feet, then you need to have a defibrillator hooked up to your chest to get your heart pumping again.
Such moments, thankfully, are doled out sparingly and for maximum effect in a story that places its greatest emphasis on humor and affection. A case of the chuckles is the only logical response as the penguins go about their bottom-heavy business, trudging forward into destiny and taking the occasional humiliating spill. In my head, they all sound like Joe Pesci. But it's definitely for the best that the filmmakers' original idea of having the birds "talk" in exaggerated voice-over a concept that reportedly made it as far as the movie's Sundance Film Festival showing was eventually dumped in favor of narration by Morgan Freeman. Though having Mr. Shawshank verbally quarterback a film has become a cliché of the rankest order, the explanatory text he recites here gives the movie just the right note of poetry (without ever making us feel we're being strong-armed into awe).
The cinematography puts the lie to the idea that penguins are visually simplistic creatures. In close-up, they're made up of remarkably detailed fields of white and dark textures. And though one could call their faces expressionless, a more careful look reveals that their plain features are able to make them seem simultaneously buffoonish and possessed of grand secrets. Why not? As the doc shows, they're a miraculous species, capable of extreme heroism, self-sacrifice, sorrow and unshakable love. They're just like human beings, only, um, cooler.