Talking animals are a tricky thing to get right, especially in non-animated films: If they’re as charming as they are in Babe, its superior sequel, and the endearing Two Brothers, it’s because the narratives of these films are pitched as fables. But Luc Jacquet’s La Marche de L’Emprereur makes a larger claim to reality, which is why the original director’s cut has been considerably tweaked for the film’s official U.S. release after its mixed Sundance premiere: the Björk-esque pop songs performed by Emile Simon have been replaced by a straightforward score by Alex Wurman and the first-person narration from the perspective of the documentary’s emperor penguins has been changed to a third-person narration courtesy of Morgan Freeman. This remixed version of the film is probably nowhere near as avant garde or strange as the original French cut, which is not to say it’s boring: Jacquet’s images of penguins leaning against each other in romantic rapture are often breathtaking (the space between the female and male bodies often takes the shape of a cartoon heart) and the world-weary Freeman narration—familiar from so many crowd-pleasers like The Shawshank Redemption and Million Dollar Baby—actually fits the emperor penguin’s struggle like a glove. Every year, these animals make the perilous journey to a traditional breeding ground where males and females systematically pair up and engage in an ancient ritual of survival. Theirs is an equal partnership predicated on joint risks and one shared goal: to keep their species alive. Eggs are hatched and chicks are exchanged between males and females, kept warm beneath a father or mother’s flap of skin while the other parent makes the trip to the faraway ocean for food. Every risk and tragedy the penguins confront—along with their complex ritual behaviors and modes of communication—is documented with effortless ease, and like fat little men and women wobbling home after a night of hardcore drinking, these little buggers don’t have to try very hard to be cute.
- Luc Jacquet
- Jordan Roberts
- Morgan Freeman
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