-By Daniel Eagan

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Extraordinary footage distinguishes this memorable wildlife documentary, filmed entirely in Antarctica. Focusing on a colony of emperor penguins, March of the Penguins not only shows how the birds survive in one of the harshest environments on Earth, but to a remarkable degree makes sense of their choice to live there. An estimable narration by Morgan Freeman, deeply felt but largely free of sentimentality, enhances the footage.

After spending the summer feasting on fish, emperor penguins leave the sea in March to journey up to 70 miles inland, returning to the precise spot where they were born. Protected from predators by the ice pack and the surrounding mountains, the penguins gather in a colony to mate. Each mother delivers a single egg, which she hands over to her mate for safekeeping. With a third of their body weight gone, the females must return to the sea to eat. It's up to the fathers to protect the eggs over the brunt of winter. The eggs hatch just before the mothers return, allowing the famished males barely enough time to trudge back to the sea to replenish themselves. Over spring, the parents alternate caring for their chicks. As summer approaches, the penguins return to the sea to begin the cycle once more.

Entranced by their waddling gait and formal attire, we are already used to anthropomorphizing penguins. Thankfully, director Luc Jacquet and his filmmakers generally avoid humanizing the birds, yet still find ways to explain their behavior. More than that, Jacquet has managed to translate the science behind emperor penguins into an unexpectedly dramatic storyline. This being a French co-production, there's even a love scene. But in keeping with Jacquet's feeling for the penguins, it's one of unusual tenderness and restraint.

With its otherworldly landscapes, Antarctica provides an astonishing backdrop to the penguins. The extremes of weather, the ferocious winter night, and the harsh geography of ice pack and rock show the dedication of cinematographers Laurent Chalet and Jerome Maison. Their images of the penguins are breathtaking, evoking everything from Japanese prints to abstract art. Alex Wurman's sensitive score and Sabine Emiliani's fluid editing are important contributions to a thoroughly enjoyable movie. March of the Penguins is a triumph of documentary filmmaking.
-Daniel Eagan

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