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Returning to the land of his 2006 Oscar-winning box-office smash, and this time with more powerful cameras, state-of-the-art diving gear and, if such a thing were possible, an even cuter cast of birds, French director Luc Jacquet offers up another look at life on the Antarctic ice in March of the Penguins 2: The Call (L’Empereur).
Not exactly a sequel to the first film, which grossed $127 million worldwide and turned emperor penguins into a brief national phenomenon (with some pundits claiming that their supposed monogamy could serve as a model for family values), this impeccably shot exposé revisits the world of the original movie while offering up new details, including a series of breathtaking underwater sequences that alone are worth the price of admission. Otherwise, a constantly gushing score and overemphasis on positive vibes — with no mention of how climate change could affect the region — makes this feel very much like the Disneynature release that it is in France. Global returns could be decent, though they’ll never match the first installment.
The earlier movie was distributed at home with two French actors playfully voicing the penguins — an idea that didn’t sit well with local audiences, and which National Geographic decided to scrap for the U.S. version, substituting in a narration by Morgan Freeman. Learning from his mistakes, Jacquet has Lambert Wilson (Of Gods and Men) provide a more traditional running commentary for this second outing, explaining the basics of emperor life down south: how the males protect the eggs for several months as the females search for food; how they both trek up to a hundred kilometers from their nesting grounds to the sea, where they can finally feed; and how returning parents can recognize their chick by its unique call (thus the English-language title).
The determined persistence of the penguins to breed and survive in temperatures of -50° or more is surely one of nature’s more impressive feats, and Jacquet and his crew of four cinematographers do it justice by capturing the action in crystal-clear 4K, with an array of extreme close-ups, slow-motion shots and drone sequences that reveal the emperors in all their pint-sized glory. One memorable scene takes us beneath the ice — with the help of diving DPs Laurent Ballesta and Yanick Gentil — to show how the penguins metamorphose once they head underwater, transforming from the slow and wobbly things they are on land into creatures who can swim like other birds can fly.
Structuring his story like a Hollywood narrative replete with flashbacks, cliffhangers and a fairly racy penguin sex scene, Jacquet constantly humanizes his subjects into movie characters capable of heroic gestures and staggering defeats. He also adds lots of extreme sound effects to make every movement seem like a matter of life and death (which is, in fact, often the case), while the omnipresent score by Cyrille Aufort (A Perfect Man) can definitely go overboard in dramatizing each scene to the max.
Those choices are meant to make Penguins more powerful than your average nature doc, and it’s hard not to be both moved and slightly blown away by the plight of these birds. At the same time, it’s unfortunate that Jacquet doesn’t spend at least a few minutes dealing with how climate change could impact their already brutal existence — a basic Google search brings up dozens of articles on the subject — which would have updated the last movie to incorporate what’s happening in Antarctica right now.
Along with the eye-popping cinematography, sound design by Samy Bardet, Francois Fayard and Thierry Lebon creates a richly detailed atmosphere where every peck and footstep can be heard, as if each penguin were wearing their own wireless mic.
Production company: Bonne Pioche Films
Narrator: Lambert Wilson
Director: Luc Jacquet
Producers: Yves Darondeau, Christophe Lioud, Emmanuel Priou
Directors of photography: Jerome Bouvier, Yanick Gentil, Luc Jacquet, Laurent Chalet, Jerome Maison
Editor: Charlene Gravel
Composer: Cyrille Aufort
Sales: Wild Bunch
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