Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
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Penguins, nature's very own headwaiters, seem to be experiencing a pop-cultural renaissance. In the funny pages, Bloom County's neurotic, flightless Opus has his own eponymous strip, while at the multiplexes, a squad of gung-ho penguins is currently stealing Madagascar. But the glacially beautiful new documentary March Of The Penguins confirms that no computer-animated or hand-drawn penguin could ever match the curious majesty of the genuine article.

When viewed from afar, the film's penguins, their black-and-white bodies accented with flecks of fiery orange and pink, resemble spectral wraiths, but up close, they look wonderfully preposterous, with their disproportionately tiny claws and heads, bulky bodies, and distinctive waddle. A hypnotic combination of the comic and the sublime, Antarctica's Emperor penguins here look clownish one moment and almost preternaturally beautiful and graceful the next. Narrated by Morgan Freeman in full-on warmly paternal Voice Of Authority mode, March Of The Penguins documents the surprising and singular reproductive lives of Emperor penguins, birds of a feather that quite literally flock together to help withstand the frigid relentlessness of Antarctica's murderous, endless winters. In an interesting reversal, male penguins spend much of their time protecting eggs while the females hunt for food, and as time goes on, the penguins tend to evenly divvy up parenting responsibilities between genders. Freeman's narration sugarcoats some of the harsher aspects of the penguins' lives, such as using "disappear" as a euphemism for dying. But the Oscar-winner's soothing, grandfatherly tones can't completely hide the fact that life in Antarctica constitutes a grim struggle against the elements in which death lies around every corner and mere survival constitutes a triumph.

Eventually, the eggs spout penguin chicks, and what could be cuter than baby penguins? Not a whole lot, but the film thankfully has the integrity to also point out the kid-unfriendly fact that sometimes when a distraught penguin loses its progeny, it'll try to steal another penguin's newborn chick in a misguided attempt to compensate for its loss. That's life in the wild kingdom, and March captures the beauty and grimness of its subjects' difficult existence. Informational and breathtaking, March Of The Penguins pays unforgettable tribute to magnificent creatures that, like the similarly far-fetched duckbilled platypus, prove evolution's genius and surprisingly wacky sense of humor.


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