The emperor penguin, whose glossy plumage and gently curving beaks impart a regal aspect indeed in director Luc Jacquet's loving lens, will produce a single egg each season per pair; the male and female will take turns shuffling it back and forth during an eight-month breeding cycle, tucking it tenderly into their respective abdominal folds lest it freeze and crack upon exposure to the air. When the crew of this painstaking documentary captures the death of an egg, the spectacle is genuinely heartbreaking, for these penguins are not the biological curios of your everyday nature movie.
In fact, the photography is so intimate, and the story of their mating is so carefully crafted into a sustained and satisfying narrative, that they become heroes of an epic character: brave, if not fearless, and stalwart fools for love. A submersible camera plunges into the Southern Ocean to follow the females on their first forage in months; after losing a third of their body weight producing the eggs, they have entrusted the brood to the males and trudged back whence they came. There appears at one point to be a "penguin cam" -- the French do love underwater photography -- and Jacquet goes a little nuts with the undersea special effects.
Then there's the narration, delivered with characteristic restraint by Morgan Freeman. We need it to explicate the science of the penguins' voyage, but at times it overstates what the camera has already told us: that Terre Ad & eacute;lle is a place of iridescent, majestic beauty, but surviving in it requires a constant stream of tiny miracles. Ultimately these missteps don't diminish the film significantly, since they don't truly interfere with what Jacquet is showing us: that these animals are capable of extreme sacrifice and cooperation on (and possibly beyond) a human scale. Like humans, they experience grief in the face of tragedy; like us, they can dig in with their backs to the wind in order to survive the ravages of a cruel environment.
Jacquet's penguins are as absorbing and incredible as any man-made phantasmagoria you'll find in the multiplex this summer, and it's all real.