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Cute doc wins in serious category

'Penguins' takes Oscar for best docu feature

French docu “March of the Penguins” — which made more at the U.S. box office than all but one of the best pic contenders — waddled its way to an Oscar, proving that cute and commercial have their place in the serious-minded docu category.

It was all gaiety as “March” director Luc Jacquet and producer Yves Darondeau came onstage with their entourage to accept the Academy Award for docu feature, each carrying a stuffed penguin.

“Looking out on these tuxedos tonight, it’s like seeing the movie again,” Darondeau said. “Thank you, thank you.”

“March” was the sleeper hit of the summer, going on to gross more than $77.4 million domestically. Of the features competing in the parallel best picture category, only “Brokeback” made more than the penguin docu in the U.S. — but not by much. “Brokeback” has made around $79 million domestically.

Docu win capped a notable kudos season for Warner Independent Pictures, which bought up English-speaking rights to “March” in partnership with National Geographic. Warner Independent also released awards contenders “Good Night, And Good Luck” and Palestinian film “Paradise Now.”

When Warner Independent prexy Mark Gill and National Geo decided to plunk down $1 million for “March” at the 2005 Sundance Film Fest, other distribs scoffed. They spent another $600,000 on a new narration track by Morgan Freeman and a new musical score.

In the U.S., “March” is the second-highest grossing docu of all time behind Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which made nearly $120 million domestically.

“March” marks the first win for a traditional nature docu since Jacques-Yves Cousteau won the Oscar in 1964 for “World Without Sun.” In 1971, “The Hellstrom Chronicle,” a madcap exposition on what might happen if insects take over, won.

Otherwise, the Oscar for docu feature has generally gone to political treatises, biographies or topical docus, including last year’s winner, “Born Into Brothels,” or “The Fog of War” the year before that. Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” won in 2002.