DVDs: Bird Land

March of the Penguins Warner/National Geographic
Movie •••• Picture/Sound ••• Extras ••••
Madagascar Dreamworks
Movie ••• Picture/Sound •••• Extras ••••½
Flightless, waiter-like birds invade the national consciousness and rule the box-office roost! From a spellbinding documentary to big, animated features (another is due later this year), from soft baby toys to soft-drink commercials, penguins are popping up everywhere. In their theatrical releases, the sleeper hit March of the Penguins put a spotlight on nature's harsh reality, while Madagascar served up a lighthearted, often slapstick take on a classic fish-out-of-water story. But each succeeded, on its own terms, by making animals seem human.

March of the Penguins is an astonishing true-life tale of Antarctic Emperor penguins and the daunting 70-mile journey they make across the ice each year for a shot at finding a mate and rearing offspring. It's not only the second most successful documentary of all time (after Fahrenheit 9/11) but the highest-grossing French film ever released Stateside, making a $77 million return on an $8 million budget. None of which is surprising once you've seen the movie. Biologist-turned-filmmaker Luc Jacquet and his crew spent 13 months on the ice gathering one eye-popping shot after another, all of which come together in an enthralling tale of struggle and survival, narrated by Morgan Freeman. Jacquet has been criticized for manipulating his images to suggest uniquely human emotions in his subjects, but that artistic license is what raises March above typical nature-documentary status.

In comparison, Madagascar is merely a well-made computer-animation feature, but it, too, finds its voice in quirky humanity. Or voices, as in those belonging to Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, David Schwimmer, and the other gifted comic actors who play Central Park Zoo animals shipwrecked on a very un-urban island in the Indian Ocean. The overly frenetic pace and thin storyline are aimed squarely at the kids, but with this much material crammed into 85 minutes, it's hard to complain. Since Madagascar took in $521 million in theaters around the world, it seems that humans are happy just so long as they're getting the bird.

Each film is a treat on DVD. Because of its near-impossible shooting conditions, March understandably varies a bit more in sharpness and detail than most conventional movies. But the best sequences will still send chills down your spine as you're transported to the harsh Antarctic. The sound, foregrounding Alex Wurman's atmospheric score, makes the film even more powerful.

Madagascar's computer-generated images are an absolute feast for the eyes. Color rendition approaches perfection as the story moves from the warm, muted colors of autumn in New York to the brash tones of the jungle. The surround mix opts for outrageous effects that constantly buzz, whir, and pop around you to keep up with the careening visuals.

The March DVD is greatly enhanced by an hour-long documentary that reveals how the crew managed to shoot the film at all - plus a featurette on the "crittercams" that were used to get those amazing underwater shots. A vintage Looney Tunes cartoon provides additional laughs. On Madagascar, the penguins get their own animated short and do a commentary over one of the documentary segments. The full-length directors' commentary by Tom McGrath and Eric Darnell focuses on the painstaking process of "building" a movie in the digital realm, and 40 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes help illustrate the process. There's also a wealth of kid-friendly extras, including six games, a music video, and a travelogue. March: [G] English and Spanish, Dolby Digital 5.1; letterboxed (1.78:1) and anamorphic widescreen; dual layer. Madagascar: [PG] English, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround; French, Dolby Digital 5.1; Spanish, Dolby Surround; letterboxed (1.85:1) and anamorphic widescreen; dual layer.

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