'Penguins' lead the documentary flock


Published: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
The documentary "March of the Penguins" finally has waddled into the video store after becoming the surprise "sleeper" box office hit of 2005.
A nature film making money? Sounds crazy, right? It's even crazier when you consider that a) it's French, b) there are no human beings in it, not even Jude Law, and c) the penguins are real, not digitally created by Pixar or Dreamworks.
"March of the Penguins" is an honest-to-goodness, bona fied, old-school nature film. It is simple, elegant, informative, and it also tells a story - a story that will appeal to everyone, from stroller to walking cane.
Ordinarily, no matter how good a nature film is, it won't be seen beyond the Discovery Channel or PBS on Sunday afternoons. But "March" tells a real tale so improbable it piques your interest, and so remarkable it holds on tight until the movie ends.
The Emperor penguins have a unique mating cycle. It begins with courtship, followed by a whirlwind honeymoon nicely set to Barry White music. Once the fun part is behind them, the penguins march single file deep into the icy deserts of Antarctica. At this time of year, the place is an icy wasteland; there are no predators because it is too cold.
The penguins march through ice storms and snow flurries for miles until they reach the right piece of ground. The female penguins lay eggs and then waddle back to the sea. The male penguins have to sit on the eggs and protect them from the cold for two months, until the wives come back with lunch. (Suddenly, holding your wife's purse while she runs to the bathroom doesn't seem quite so arduous, does it?)
How can they endure such hardship? How can life keep perpetuating itself in such a harsh environment? Most importantly, how can the penguins tell each other apart and keep track of their mates?
"March of the Penguins" doesn't have all the answers, but it doesn't pretend to.
Narrated by the warm, friendly voice of Morgan Freeman, "March" is content to be an unobtrusive observer. There are highs and lows, laughs and sadness, but this documentary just presents the weird, wild spectacle of nature untouched.
This is a nature film that embodies everything good about the genre. It is well shot, with astounding vistas and scenery, and the humans stay behind the camera so the penguins can be the stars of the show.
So why is it that "March of the Penguins" is available in over-abundance (dozens of copies per rental outlet) and another new film about wild birds, "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," is so hard to find?
Both films are critically acclaimed documentaries that provide touching and emotional insight into the lives of birds, but you'll be lucky to find one copy of "Wild Parrots" in your video store.
Maybe it's just another example of the Pro-Penguin Lobby, the same driving force that has all those Coke commercials in which polar bears cuddle with penguins instead of feasting on them. The same lobby that over-exposed the irritating "Madagascar" penguins. The same subversive political movement that not only pushed "Happy Feet" into production (the forthcoming animated film about how much penguins love to dance) but also "Surf's Up," a CGI movie about how much penguins love to enter professional surf contests.
Did Oswald Cobblepot from "Batman Returns" take over the MPAA, or are penguins just so darn cute that people can't resist them?
The answer is B; penguins are just that cute. Parrots are colorful and loud but can't even compete with that waddling black-and-white level of adorability.
In "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," we spend a lot of time with Mark Bittner, a former hippie, bum and lay-about who started feeding a flock of wild parrots in San Francisco. There are 100 theories and urban legends about where the parrots came from, but the most reasonable contends these were pet birds that escaped - or more likely were released by their owners for being too screechy.
These exotic birds have somehow adapted to city life and started breeding. Mark takes an avid interest in the birds. He feeds them and tends to their wounds. He even lets one of them stay in his house - except when the bird goes loco and starts attacking his foot. He studies the parrots and keeps an extensive journal about every detail of the flock. And for a long while, he is the only person who seems to care about such an oddity.
The existence of wild exotic birds in the middle of a North American city makes an interesting story, but unfortunately I didn't think "Wild Parrots" focused enough on the wild parrots. A simple nature film about how they survive in the urban jungle, how they eat and procreate and nest - that would have been interesting. But instead of "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" we get a doc that should have been called "The Wild Parrot Dude of Telegraph Hill."
"March of the Penguins" is a nature movie. It tells the story of something that happens naturally without any input or assistance from humanity. "Wild Parrots" tells the story of a creepy-but-harmless longhair who obsesses over a flock of birds. It's not a very interesting story, and Mark Bittner is not nearly as interesting as the birds themselves.
But, honestly, the parrots really aren't in the same league as the marching penguins. "March" is an epic nature movie and makes penguins seem complex and interesting. "Wild Parrots" aren't as cute, cuddly, endearing or ingratiating as the penguins - and Mark Bittner even less so.
(This column, incidently is dedicated to the beloved, dearly departed pet cockatiels Boo-Boo and the spectacularly named Boo-Boo Two: Electric Boogaloo.)
Send smart remarks to Rewindcolumn@hotmail.com.
March of the Penguins EEE1/2 (three and one half Es)
Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill EE (two Es)

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