The familiar, soothing baritone of Morgan Freeman’s narration in the opening minutes of “March of the Penguins 2: The Call” tells you everything you need to know about what’s to come. “Meet the remarkable emperor penguin,” he says as the tuxedoed creature waddles along a barren patch of ice. “Again.”
Completed a decade after French director Luc Jacquet’s original paean to the arctic birds made $127 million at the box office and won a best documentary Oscar, this sort-of sequel provides a refurbished, high-resolution dose of the same natural wonders found in the initial installment: the perilous routine of courtship, breeding, and long-distance treks for food in the extreme conditions of Antarctica, by animals that know nothing else.
Jacquet’s franchise has had multiple lives. The European release of “March of the Penguins” included French actors voicing the penguins, and Freeman’s gentler, benevolent intonations for the English-language version turned the movie into a cultural phenomenon (and, for Freeman, an innocuous punchline; he’s second only to Christopher Walken in a ranking of the world’s most recognizable voices). Freeman’s off-screen performance for “Penguins” in turn influenced Jacquet’s approach to the sequel, released as “March of the Penguins 2: L’Empereur” in France two years ago with solo voiceover by Lambert Wilson. The nature movie is now a formula — let the wise guru guide you through an astonishing ecosystem — and Freeman’s return for Hulu’s exclusive release of the English-language version feels like business as usual.
The home-viewing platform is an ironic outlet for this ravishing grab bag of visual splendor, but even on the small screen, penguins are the stars. This time, Jacquet captures their delicate maneuvers in minute detail with even better technology. The 4k resolution adds a remarkable polish to the large birds’ hulking frames, the citrus stripes dotting their fur, and the bluish hue of the ice structures looming in the background of every painterly shot. Drones capture the penguins’ titular single-file march to the sea, as if peering down on ants atop an icy log.
The movie’s official synopsis suggests a focus on the plight of a single couple, from the tricky group effort to keep their egg warm to epic food-gathering missions while their newborn chick blossoms into an adorable plucky teen. However, “March of the Penguins 2” goes easy on the anthropomorphism; even as seemingly thousands of penguins gather in a hectic colony, each animal stands out, and the story may as well involve any one of them.
The drama, as it were, tends to blur together — baby penguins dodge watchful birds of prey, the dad wanders for ages before finding food — but Jacquet has ample footage to ensure the material sustains a hypnotic quality. In one striking sequence, the colony tip-toes and slides across 7,000 miles of ice sheets … only to arrive at an unremarkable valley with slightly better weather conditions. “By local standards,” Freeman tells us, “it’s a penguin paradise.”
If that doesn’t grab you, wait until Jacquet captures a romantic penguin courtship set to Cyrille Aufort’s lovely orchestral score, or the touching moment when father and son part ways as the orange sun swells between them. Freeman wisely stops short of ascribing emotional depth to these moments; they speak for themselves. And while the first installment found the penguins coping with daunting predators in the sea, this one enters Jacques Cousteau territory with stunning looks at the penguins swimming through schools of fish beneath the frozen surface.
The threat here is at once less immediate and more ominous.It’s a reality-based alternative to the Roland Emmerich disaster moviel, because the ice is really melting beneath the penguins’ feet. “March of the Penguins” was released one year before “An Inconvenient Truth,” and the sequel arrives when the images of vast ice plates carry sharp political reverberations. Global warming creeps into the narrative as the penguins cope with unexpected changes to their mating and migration habits, caused by pathways literally melting all around them.
“The hand of man reaches even here,” says Freeman, adding almost nonchalantly that if sea ice keeps melting at the current rate, the species could be extinct by the end of the century. By pairing this alarming factoid with a complex look at the way these penguins depend on a stable environment to survive, “March of the Penguins 2” obtains a measure of depth beyond its spectacular vistas.
Still, these movies swoon more than they pontificate, and Jacquet falls short of transforming these awe-inspiring moments into a singular work of art. A far cry from Werner Herzog’s “Encounters at the Edge of the World,” the “March of the Penguins” odyssey is almost too coy about the sophisticated processes at its center. As with so many traditional nature documentaries, it watches and explains, but rarely extrapolates greater meaning or editorializes about the narrative at its center. There’s an element of ritual to the entire endeavor, the way the movie offers a paean to nature’s sacred processes, and treasures beauty over scientific or philosophical depth.
Still, in the final shot, the penguins wander a small triangle of ice and the camera pulls back to reveal it’s adrift among indifferent waves. The “March of the Penguins” story could continue indefinitely, but only if the penguins survive long enough to keep the franchise alive.
“March of the Penguins 2: The Next Step” is available on Hulu beginning on March 23, 2018.