Birds have migratory effect for theaters

Tales of feathered friends are a draw

July 20, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Romance is what March of the Penguins is all about," says Adam Leipzig, president of National Geographic Feature Films. "I hope it gets nominated for best kiss at the MTV movie awards."

After seeing French filmmaker Luc Jacquet's picture in January at the Sundance Film Festival, Leipzig partnered with Warner Independent's Mark Gill to snap up U.S. distribution rights. Their acuity has paid off in critical prestige and business.

As of Monday, March of the Penguins had grossed $3.8 million, and its raves and revenues are sure to expand when it widens from 132 to roughly 600 theaters this weekend. (Already playing at the Charles in Baltimore and Muvico in Anne Arundel County, it will open at AMC Columbia, Loews White Marsh and Annapolis Harbour on Friday.) It's poised to become one of the most successful documentaries of all time.

In Jacquet's lucid and gorgeous nature documentary, the emperor penguins' annual mating trek into Antarctica becomes a Homeric odyssey, as harrowing as it is exalting. By the end, Jacquet's penguins seem 10 feet tall. It's a jolt when the final shots reveal human cameramen towering over them.

For Leipzig, "The bond between the penguin couples as they stand belly to belly and forehead to forehead, in a communion of meditation, is so beautiful and touching, it represents the kind of relationship we all aspire to with our lovers."

One reason the movie plays "to all ages" as a "grand, beautiful, universal story" is that it demonstrates continuity between conjugal romance and family responsibility. "Penguins are the most devoted, amazing, committed parents on the face of the earth," says Leipzig. Each winter they march 70 miles inland to their breeding ground and protect their eggs and chicks against starvation, deadly cold and predators.

As unique and inspiring as their saga is, the penguins may also be capturing the crest of a wave. In 2003, another French documentary, Winged Migration, uplifted audiences with the survival strategies of several wildly different species. It rung up $11 million at the American box office.

"Audiences are tired of humans," jokes Ken Eisen of the tiny Shadow Distribution company, "or maybe birds are much better humans than we are anyway."

The Shadow release of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, a nonprofit, no-budget documentary about dozens of cherry-headed conures who took root in San Francisco, has grossed nearly $2.5 million since it opened in theaters in February. (Hoping for a long theatrical life, both Warner Independent and Shadow are holding their films back from DVD release till winter.)

Directed by Judy Irving, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill would make a terrific double-bill with March of the Penguins - and not just because each is about 80 minutes long. The parrots, like the emperor penguins, are protective parents who are also serially monogamous. And as Irving says, both species are "comical and intelligent." Just as piquant, though, are their differences.

Parrots have wildly expressive eyes, varying patches of bright color, and antic, diverse personalities. Penguins look the same and move nearly identically; what distinguishes them as individuals is a vocal signature too subtle for human ears.

And if March of the Penguins gets some of its exotic allure from the total isolation of the birds from people, wild parrots prove seductive because they interact intimately with Mark Bittner, their brilliant soul mate and protector (and author of the book of the same name). A musician who came to the Bay Area partly because of his devotion to Beat poets, he analyzes their characters with a keenness that humans yearn for from poets, dramatists or psychotherapists.

"The parrots being in a city encourages urban folks to look around," Irving says. If there's a rousing epic purity to the birds in March of the Penguins battling the elements with their social skills (males huddle tight to keep out the cold, and take turns on the chilly perimeter), there's a Dead End Kid spunk to the parrots' metropolitan scavenging finesse. "There's always something growing in San Francisco, and these birds know when a fig or an apple tree is bearing fruit. They know this habitat - it keeps them alive in the winter."

A joint theme of these movies is that the flocks as social units mesh for the benefit of individuals and the group better than human communities. These birds have a mass consciousness that outstrips humans' in conscience, fellow feeling and practicality.

But the distributors of their movies are pretty smart, too.

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