This review was corrected on February 7, 2005.
Harshly beautiful images of penguins surviving and thriving during an unforgiving Antarctic winter distinguish “The Emperor’s Journey,” Luc Jacquet’s sometimes harrowing, sometimes hokey, sometimes heartwarming nature documentary. Warner Independent Pictures and National Geographic Features likely will see satisfying returns on their investment after teaming to secure U.S. rights to the French-produced feature showcased at Sundance 2005 (pic opened Jan. 26 in Paris). To maximize B.O. potential, however, distribs would do well to rethink the gimmick of using actors to provide vocals for pic’s “stars.”
Jacquet and his production team spent 13 months in the frigid Antarctic wilds to shoot striking super-16mm footage of emperor penguins in the birds’ natural environment. With the invaluable aid of editor Sabine Emiliani, Jacquet has shaped the material into a generally absorbing narrative of mating rituals and parental instincts, focusing on a single couple’s collaborative efforts to produce and protect their offspring.
Early scenes briskly clarify specifics of geography and zoology by showing hundreds of penguins emerging from icy waters to trek countless miles across ice-scapes toward their traditional breeding grounds. Jacquet has some fun with the penguin pair-offs — since females outnumber males, each femme penguin is extremely possessive of her potential mate — and gets laughs by showing jealous birds slapping and pecking at suspected romantic rivals.
Once he focuses on the primary couple, however, Jacquet uncorks the schmaltz while employing actors Romane Bohringer and Charles Berling to voice penguins murmuring sweet nothings to each other. It’s easy to understand helmer’s desire to personalize the birds with anthropomorphic affectation. But it’s difficult not to laugh out loud as nuzzling penguins pledge their troth as each other’s “soul mate.”
“Emperor’s Journey” works best as an unblinking witness to the survival of fittest. Once femme penguins lay their eggs, they immediately head back to far-off icy waters to procure food. Meanwhile, males are left behind to hatch the eggs and nurture the offspringuntil the mothers return with food.
While hordes of males huddle together for warmth as frigid winds blow and mighty blizzards rage, females risk being eaten alive by predatory sea creatures as they fish for tasty morsels. Inevitably, some penguins are felled by the elements, and blanketed by the snow. (“Anything that dies is erased.”) And more than a few of the offspring die aborning.
Pic renders the brutal life-or-death struggle against nature with a vividness of detail that might frighten very small children. But spirit-lifting finale will delight auds hearty enough to brave the journey.