Beauty on Ice

July 20, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: A warm summer afternoon; a restless mate who wanted to get out of the house. What should we see? We hadn’t seen a movie in months. In fairness, a lot of our fellow citizens hadn’t either. The box office is in a protracted slump — movie-viewing down right across the board. Even the big blockbusters aren’t as big as usual.

We didn’t want to see any of those, didn’t want our terror tickled by “War of the Worlds,” didn’t want to see the kitschy, violence-as-foreplay of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.”

What was left? Wasn’t there anything delicate, moving, non-assaultive?

There was, indeed. An unassuming little documentary about penguins; a noble, goofy, waddling parade of them, making their way across the Antarctic icescape to and from their breeding ground. They were the sleeper stars of summer, these intrepid breeders shuffling and sliding in their age-old choreography across the coldest spot on the planet — a 70-mile trek to the place they were born and where they now mate, momentarily monogamous, producing an egg, protecting it together to chickdom.

It is a slippery, magical dance, and it is producing box office magic, small-scale but determined. In fact, when we caught it, ticket sales for “March of the Penguins” on a per-screen basis were more than for any other movie, including the big guys, to which it is so clearly a welcome antidote for young and old, kids and dates. It has been pulling them all in.

The morning after we saw the movie, we awoke to the carnage in London: Another round of bombs, another vigil, another soul-sickening wait for the tally of the dead and wounded. We keep seeing it now, this new ad hoc hybrid form of rage and destruction, these fanatic martyrs sneaking among us with their lethal weapons, making themselves often into those weapons.

Is it any wonder then that we don’t have the stomach for Hollywood’s hyperactive violence, any wonder that it seems more gratuitous than usual, more exploitive, more insulting, more just silly — any wonder that movie ticket sales are tanking?

Big movies are often dubbed “escapist fare.” Grab your popcorn, sit back to be scared to death, like getting on one of those scream-inducing theme park rides. That still works for some, no doubt — even many.

But for some of the rest of us, it is too close to the bone — not escapist at all. We don’t need to be artificially scared, don’t want to be. We need to see beauty, survival, the intrepid shuffling optimism of the emperor penguins making their eons-old mating march across a forbidding piece of the earth — a reminder that, against fierce and frozen odds, they prevail.

We will, too, won’t we? I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.