''March of the Penguins." It sounds like the title of an unwritten episode in George Lucas's intergalactic megafranchise, but this touching and brisk National Geographic-produced documentary actually is about penguins, with whom we have far more in common than any of the digitized creations in Lucas land.
Directed by Luc Jacquet, bravely photographed by Jerome Maison and Laurent Chalet, and narrated by Morgan Freeman, ''March of the Penguins" presents the unique breeding cycle of Antarctic emperor penguins, majestic little creatures with long white torsos, talon-like beaks, and an enduring need to reproduce.
Every spring, they waddle and slide on their bellies for miles to a wide open space where the ice is thickest and where hundreds of other penguins have gathered to look for a mate in the coldest place on earth.
It's a great, big singles mixer. And because the females outnumber the males, the ladies compete for the attention of the unattached men, who seem to know the statistics and carry on with a cocky sense of aloofness. The movie never says what becomes of the single female, who presumably will have to wait until next season, but certainly someone at Modern Penguin magazine is writing an article about how they should be in a total panic.
The good news for the remaining singles is that there really is always next year: Once the courtship is over, the love made, and the egg hatched, man, woman, and child sever their bond and go their separate ways, only to gather in the same spot the following season for a different partner. The movie never mentions whether repeat couplings occur or if really old penguins have midlife crises and just want to keep pairing off with hot young things.
Alas, ''March of the Penguins" is a sensitively made family film about how families are created and maintained. The bulk of the footage shows us what a nightmare parenting is -- a never-ending trudge back and forth for sustenance. The single egg is laid (only is one produced per rotation) in the thick of winter. Mom, who is depleted and famished, trudges back to the sea for food enough for her and baby, entrusting the fathers to keep the eggs safe from freezing and from predators.
For two months, and as 100-mile-an-hour winds hit them in 80-below temperatures, the males huddle in a large, heat-generating mass that, from above, resembles a black-and-white jetty. The eggs remain in a pocket cradle atop the father-to-be's claws and beneath a flap of warm belly flesh. Some penguins lose the egg, which freezes on the ice.
''March of the Penguins" doesn't hide the dangers of being a penguin. It shows the feeding mothers, who plow through the water like torpedoes, under a hungry leopard seal's attack. Kids might blanch at some of the more upsetting images, but ultimately the movie will delight and uplift more families than it will scare.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.