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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 November 2006, 12:47 GMT
Why are penguins such good box office?
The Magazine answers...

Emperor penguins (Fred Olivier)
Penguins' extreme parenthood struggle has resonance
Despite all the hype, the latest James Bond film was beaten at the US box office by a film starring animated penguins. It follows the success of March of the Penguins, and as they top the bill in the BBC's Planet Earth.

They look adorable, walk upright, and we like to think they share our emotions - attributes that seem to be a winning combination for movie-goers.

The animated movie Happy Feet took $42.3m (22.3m) in its US opening weekend, beating the much-hyped Bond movie Casino Royale. The figures will not be mirrored in the UK, where Happy Feet is not released until 8 December. But it is a lot of money for a schmaltzy, unlikely story about singing penguins.

It comes after the Oscar and box office success last year of French documentary March of the Penguins, best documentary feature at the Oscars and the second-highest grossing documentary on its release (after Fahrenheit 9/11).

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Penguins also star in the latest series of BBC One's Planet Earth, leading the first episode, Ice Worlds. They return this Sunday to come under attack from seals.

The voiceover man on the trailer for Happy Feet tells us that, "What makes you different can make all the difference in the world."

For penguins, that may be the way they walk upright. As humans, we are attracted to creatures that share our traits - hence the popularity of Meerkats, which can stand on their hind legs, and chimpanzees, which have a very human face.

"Very few animals walk around on two feet, the way they waddle and their strange shuffling gait connects people to them," says Justin Anderson, assistant producer on Ice Worlds.

Money shots a-plenty

Beyond that, the high interest value of their lives is a gift to any wildlife film-maker. Theirs is an unparalleled struggle through extreme adversity to achieve what may people want - parenthood.

"It's probably the best example of parenthood on the planet," says Anderson. "The male spends 115 days without eating, with the egg on his feet, in permanent darkness in the least hospitable place on the planet. His partner walks 200km to the sea to feed. The extreme effort chimes if you are a parent."

Compared with the exploits of more familiar wildlife - elephants, big cats, etc - the unfamiliar, inaccessible world of penguins is a box office bonus. There are money shots to be had from their behaviour - how they toboggan along on their stomachs; their grace in water; their amazing mating rituals.

Mumble the penguin from the film Happy Feet

It is those pairing rituals, and the clumsy way they tackle their second home on land that gives them the comedy ingredient - take the slapstick "handbags at dawn style" slap fighting between the females as the competition for males intensifies.

"There's an obvious comedy value to them," says Anderson. "In Emperor penguin courtship, there are 20,000 of them. They look identical to us, but the idea that there is this high degree of selection - because they are desperate to make sure they pick a strong partner - is funny."

Our attempts to anthropomorphise their behaviour are key, but translating that to ticket sales depends on "developing their talents", says Nick Hunt, reviews editor at film magazine Screen Daily.

In the case of Happy Feet, director George Millerm has proved his credentials in bringing the animals to life. The man behind the outstandingly successful 90s film Babe - which starred a talking pig - clearly knows a thing or two about drawing a big family audience to a film about animals.


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