Scrappy little survivors in tuxedo jackets

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Antarctica, one of Earth's most hostile habitats, is home to one of the oldest animal species on the planet. "March of the Penguins" tells the extraordinary story of how these charming, flightless birds live and breed in this harsh environment.

As the only warmblooded permanent inhabitants of Antarctica, Emperor penguins repeatedly take a nearly 150-mile roundtrip journey on foot (and some tummy sliding), from the open ocean to an inland breeding ground in hurricane-force winds and temperatures of minus 50 to minus 80 degrees F. - all to ensure the survival of their offspring. They have done this for hundreds of thousands of years, despite the startling 80 percent mortality rate for the baby chicks.

This French documentary - directed by Luc Jacquet and narrated by actor Morgan Freeman - follows in the spirit of the surprise hit, "Winged Migration," in treating the perseverance of these intriguing creatures as feature-film material. Mr. Jacquet says his intention was to write the screenplay as a classic fairy tale, "in the same tradition as, say, an Inuit myth with that same sort of classic timelessness, so that even the simplest words might have depth."

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The story's narrative arc does indeed have the simplicity of a child's tale: The penguins, after a five-year adolescence at sea, hear the call of nature and begin the trek inland to find a mate, lay a single cantaloupe-sized egg, hatch it, feed the chick, and return to the sea.

But there's nothing simple about the making of the film. French crews spent 13 months holed up in the icy polar world, venturing out for two to three hours at a time to capture footage.

Jacquet, a student of biology and animal behavior, first became interested in Antarctica 12 years ago, when he answered a newspaper ad calling for a "fearless biologist, ready to spend 14 months at the end of the world."

The assignment was to band and film Emperor penguins. The only problem: He'd never used a camera. After 10 days practicing with a 35mm camera, he left for the French Antarctic station.

This was when he began his love affair with the 66th parallel. "Here we are, in the most forsaken place on earth, and yet here are these magnificent penguins striving to stay alive when there is absolutely nothing around them," says Jacquet. "This stark contrast magnifies the fight between life and death. I would like people to be as fascinated by the penguins and the landscape as I am."

Jacquet went on to make other nature films, as well as take additional trips to the Antarctic. Four years ago, he returned to make a television film of the Emperor penguins, but he realized that what he really had was a feature film.

It's hard not to be moved by the images of these stalwart animals, who look like diminutive tuxedoed waiters in snappy little bird suits. Yet, the agonizingly clumsy processes involved with the penguins' parenting are almost too much to bear - the mother must immediately transfer her large egg to the male. But time and nature have not streamlined this process.

The birds bump into each other repeatedly, attempting to move the egg from atop one set of gnarly feet to the other. The camera pulls back to reveal a landscape littered with eggs that went astray, with dreadful consequences: No egg can survive the cold for more than a minute. We watch one such egg crack and freeze before our eyes.

The spectacular underwater footage (some of the first ever recorded) of the swimming penguins only serves to underline their above-ground determination and sacrifice, for in the sea, the birds are swift and well-coordinated.

The story itself is engaging, but the filmmakers would like the movie to convey a warning about global warming.

If the ice shrinks, says Jacquet, the penguins will not have as far to walk to get to the ocean from their breeding ground. "By the same token, they will have less to eat. Many species, such as seals, whales, and penguins, among others, feed on krill, and because the winter ice has been melting and the krill feed on algae which grows under the sea ice, there is less krill," he says, "Climate change has immediate consequences."

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