Thirteen years after his Oscar-winning “March of the Penguins,” documentarian Luc Jacquet returns to Antarctica to provide another portrait of the species’ trek-heavy lives with “The Next Step.” Unavoidably, this sequel is, for all its majestic beauty, somewhat less awe-inspiring than its revelatory predecessor. Once again boasting narration from Morgan Freeman, the doc has a gracefulness and understated profundity that’ll naturally appeal to those who loved the first film, making it a coup for streaming service Hulu, its exclusive American distributor.
First released in French theaters last year (with narration by Lambert Wilson), and shot over two months, “March of the Penguins 2: The Next Step” delivers a slightly different perspective on emperor penguins, here via the prism of the relationship between fathers and sons. That bond is forged early, as dads are required to cradle eggs to protect them from the frozen ice that will surely kill the embryos contained within, and then to alternately care for their brood while mom is away gathering food. The dads also venture out to sea themselves to partake in some fishing.
Before that instinctive process can begin, Jacquet touches on the unique identifying calls that penguins use to attract partners, and the “secret language of penguin flirtation,” which is comprised of inscrutable mating cues that the director depicts in some of the film’s innumerable close-ups. As with the BBC’s “Planet Earth” series, “March of the Penguins 2: The Next Step” is marked by stunning 4K cinematography (courtesy of a group of ace camera operators), which, married to expert sound design, creates engaging and occasionally exhilarating proximity to the creatures as they breed in minus-40-degree temperatures, huddle for warmth amid raging winds, and belly-slide their way across the tundra.
Jacquet’s slow-motion imagery captures the innate elegance of his subjects, especially during striking underwater sequences that track a father as he searches for krill and fish to bring back to his progeny. That task, like so many faced by the emperors as they attempt to breathe new life into this cold, inhospitable world, is cast in dramatic narrative terms by the documentary, with the director regularly interjecting obstacles — hungry carrion birds stalking newborn penguins; vast ice chasms that must be crossed in order to reach the sea — as a way of keeping the story, as it were, lively and suspenseful.
To that end, “March of the Penguins 2: The Next Step” benefits from Freeman’s simultaneously stately and playful commentary, which pokes fun at the emperor’s pesky cousins (“What it is about the Adélies that makes them so, well, annoying?”) while touching upon the “majestic chaos” of the ever-shifting Arctic landscape. The effects of climate change on the emperors’ environment is ever-present throughout Jacquet’s doc, but frustratingly, the filmmaker only intermittently addresses it head-on — a missed opportunity given that the perilousness of the animals’ fate is fundamental to the material.
Nonetheless, set to Cyrille Aufort’s melodramatic score, the film doesn’t otherwise pull its punches. And in its honest confrontation of the hazards inherent to this idiosyncratic species’ life cycle — full of adventures across imposing plains and scary first steps into a great unknown — it enhances its celebration of the emperors’ ancient rituals and indefatigable spirit.