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Cooler than Chili Willi: March of the Penguins.

Extreme Mating
By Ann Morrow

March of the Penguins

Directed by Luc Jacquet

At the bottom of the Earth, on the coldest, windiest, and darkest continent on the planet, a blithe parade of chubby, black-and-white figures (looking, from a distance, like tuxedoed snowmen), moves resolutely inland through forbidding ice crags and wind-stripped open tundra. They are emperor penguins, and though their dignified waddle is adorable, there is nothing cute about their harrowing journey. The only animals able to survive the Antarctic winter, the emperors are marching to their ancestral breeding ground hundreds of miles away from their natural habitat, the sea. They’ve been making this annual pilgrimage for thousands of years. Before the return journey in early summer, many will die, and some will have made the arduous trip for nothing. A harsh and fascinating tale of survival, March of the Penguins is also a strange and tender love story.

How the emperors navigate their way to the place of their birth is a mystery, although there’s some indication that they use the Southern Lights for illumination or guidance. Once they’ve arrived on their chosen land, the males engage in a mystifying search for the ideal mate. After making their selections, the couples will identify each other (all emperors tending to look alike) by a unique singing tone to their squawking. They will remain intensely committed for the duration of the mating season; the mating dance involves elegant bobbing and arcing of their surprisingly swan-like necks. In fact, all the birds’ locomotion is delightful, especially the expressive use of their paddle-like wings and the way they shoot out of the water like torpedoes.

Written and directed by Luc Jacquet, and photographed over the course of an entire year (the film crew used the French research station for a home base), March of the Penguins captures the emperors’ extraordinary behaviors and survival mechanisms, much of which was hitherto unknown information. The birds rely on altruism and devotion to cope with the inhospitable terrain: Winds average 160 mph and the temperature can drop to minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The birds suspend their territorial instincts to huddle for warmth, and the males and females share incredible sacrifices—such as going two months without food—in order to protect their eggs and chicks from the cold. Some will fail, and the grief of a mother penguin who finds her lost chick frozen to death will allay any ideas that the animals are operating on instinct alone.

Unfortunately, Jacquet’s narration, spoken by the honey-voiced Morgan Freeman, is overly emotional and flowery, detracting from the severe allure of much of the footage, some of which is absolutely spectacular, such as the undersea sequences (shot from a submarine) that follow the birds as they dive-bomb for fish at incredible speeds. And you’ve never seen any shots of seals, their main predator, like these before: On the hunt, they are unexpectedly frightening creatures. Which brings up a caveat: Despite the heart-melting promo photos of baby penguins, this amazing film is at times too grim for young children.

Next Stop Candyland

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Directed by Tim Burton

For every fan of author Roald Dahl’s work, there are legions of people who just don’t get it. Generally, these legions do not include children, who simply delight in his mix of the grotesque and the outrageously imaginative. Also, Dahl’s worlds are ones in which bullies and posers get theirs in the end, and regular kids with no ultra-excellent abilities are rewarded in ways that only kids would truly appreciate.

Tim Burton, from whose rich imagination springs the latest cinematic rendition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is probably the only director today (OK, maybe Robert Rodriguez) with the unique ability to match an innovative visual and aural sensibility to equally imaginative, yet largely faithful take on the source narrative. Here is a chocolate factory in which a choco-addict’s wet dreams are fulfilled, only to be whetted again and again. Chocolate springs forth from waterfalls, eddies in lusciously rich pools, glistens and begs to be licked. This is complete realization of the quest that propels the beginning of the movie: the desire to win one of only five golden tickets, each placed within the silver wrapper of a Wonka Bar, that enable the lucky ones to visit Willy Wonka’s magical factory.

Burton and screenwriter John August stay more or less true to the plot, but have made some crucial updates, particularly in the depiction of the horrid little creatures who, along with goodhearted Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore), obtain the golden tickets. For instance, the gum-smacking Violet Beauregarde (Annasophia Robb) is the ultra-competitive doll child of an equally trophy-minded mother. Perhaps the most tinkering has been done with Wonka himself. Much has been made regarding the question of just exactly who Johnny Depp is channeling in the part. While the actor himself has hinted about Vogue editor Anna Wintour, others have suggested far creepier choices, such as Michael Jackson. Regardless of its source inspiration, Depp’s Wonka is at once wondrous and weird, fascinating and vastly troubling. In some ways, this is a far closer representation to Dahl’s protagonist—a strange yet compelling blend of the genial and the sinister—than fans could have hoped for.

In other areas, however, Burton and August have made a fatal error in saddling Wonka with the all-too-familiar backstory, the autocratic parent—in this case a dentist played by Christopher Lee!—who squashed any sense of fun or magic in little Willy’s life. The combination of wishy-washy flashbacks with moments in which Depp’s performance becomes too highly conceptualized are the twin, glaring flaws in an otherwise enchanting movie.

For the most part, however, this is a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that celebrates the richness of Dahl’s story and characters, from the wickedly funny Oompa Loompas (all played by Deep Roy) and their equally zingy production numbers (penned by Danny Elfman), to the deliciously judicious comeuppances meted out to Charlie’s four competitors and, yes, to the ramshackle abode in which Charlie lives with his parents and, famously, his four bedridden grandparents. As Charlie, Highmore is refreshingly natural and unforced; when Mike asks what’s the point of certain candy flavors, Highmore’s Charlie responds to the effect that there doesn’t have to be a point, without the usual Hollywood coyness that generally punctuates the moral of the story. Almost a character in itself, but in a way that only adds to the entire picture, is the Wonka factory designed by Alex McDowell; much credit must also go to the cinematography by Philippe Rousselot. There is utter anarchy on the screen, and it’s 99-percent delicious.

—Laura Leon


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