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Each winter, alone in the pitiless ice deserts of Antarctica, deep in the most inhospitable terrain on Earth, a remarkable journey takes place as it has done for millennia. Emperor penguins in their thousands abandon their deep ocean home and clamber onto the frozen ice to begin their long journey - on foot - of over 100 kilometres, into a region so bleak, so extreme, it supports no other wildlife at this time of year. It is their breeding ground, a place where the ice is thick enough to prevent their young crashing through to the freezing waters below. In single file, the penguins march, buffeted by blizzards and gale force winds. Resolute, indomitable, driven by the overpowering urge to reproduce, to assure the survival of the species. On arrival, they start finding their mate for this season and face the hardest part of it all.

Review by Louise Keller:
A miracle of a film, March of the Penguins is one of the year's joys. This extraordinary glimpse into the life of the emperor penguins is far more than a story of survival: it is a unique love story of immense proportions. I sat wide-eyed throughout this marvellous documentary that offers drama, romance and touches of comedy. I felt as though I went through a landslide of emotions. From laughter to tears, we experience it all through the pathos-filled journey of the penguin. Morgan Freeman's commanding narration holds our attention with a script that is entertaining and understated. Music, too, is used to best advantage, with a haunting five note motif that lingers, just like the arctic chill.

We join these amazing creatures in their home habitat in the icy cold of Antarctica. The ice that forms the land mass is stark white with reflections of the surrounding bright turquoise waters. They might be birds, but the penguins feed in the sea, able to hold their breath for up to 15 minutes, as they swim among the fish. And at the end of summer, they leap from the waters, land on their white bellies and dig their claw-like webbed feet into the snow. Then, standing upright, as the ocean around them begins to freeze, they begin their long trek inland to mate.

In silhouette, the caravan of penguins look like hooded figures crossing the ice. Their human-ness extends to more than their appearance as they display social behaviour not unlike our own. It's as though they are conversing at a cocktail party, flapping arms, as the rituals of courtship begin. The egg may be the culmination of mating, but there is still a long way to go before new life is guaranteed. There is the delicate transfer of egg from the mother to the father and the ensuing challenge for the new babysitter is to literally weather the storm. At temperatures of minus 80 degrees, the male penguins huddle together while the females retrace the many steps of their 70 mile journey to feed in the ocean. The reversal of roles between male and female is a real eye opener as is the willingness of both to endure great hardship to fulfill their strong instinct to reproduce.

There are some indescribably beautiful moments, like the egg hatching and a little woolly newborn taking his first breath, or first steps. But there are many hurdles to overcome just to survive and despair and elation sit side by side. An uplifting experience for young and old, March of the Penguins is magic.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
An improbably human-like animal in its silhouette and its walk, emperor penguins will often ignite spontaneous laughter, their movements so astonishingly like some Charlie Chaplin wannabe, silent movie comics with a deadpan routine. Should they slip and fall on the ice, it's the banana peel pratfall - only funnier for it's an animal performing it. Well, that laughter gets an outing in March of the Penguins a couple of times, but it's balanced by the enormous respect and awe that this film engenders in us as we watch their mating ritual - a tortuous nine month process of unimaginable hardship.

If one of the key measures of a good documentary is that we learn something we didn't know, March of the Penguins certainly measures up. These hardy filmmakers have captured a slice of penguin life that is as riveting as a human adventure of life and death proportions. Morgan Freeman narrates a script written with that sort of tension in mind, alternating with the tenderness that the penguins show toward each other and their young.

The wailing of a parent on the death of a chick is heartbreakingly familiar; the caress of pre-mating adults is quite sensual - and portrayed with the same French sensibility as any scene of human lovemaking. There is perhaps a tendency to sentimentalise the proceedings, both cinematically and musically, but if we can overlook that, we are rewarded with a profound and moving reminder of the limitless wonders of the natural world.

A staggering effort by the penguins - repeated over millennia - is almost matched by a staggering effort from the humans who braved the vicious icescape of Antarctica in winter to capture this amazing, life seeking ritual.

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(France, 2005)

La Marche de l'empereur

NARRATION: Morgan Freeman (US version); Charles Berling, Romane Bohringer, Jules Sitruk (French version)

PRODUCER: Yves Darnodeau, Christopher Lioud, Emmanuel Priou

DIRECTOR: Luc Jacquet

SCRIPT: Jordan Roberts (narration) Luc Jacquet (earlier screenplay)

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Laurent Chalet, Jerome Maison

EDITOR: Sabine Emiliani

MUSIC: Emilie Simon Alex Wurman (US version)

RUNNING TIME: 80 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 30, 2006 (limited); April 13, 2006 (wide)

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