Liz Smith: Penguins Conquer New York's "Frozen Planet" Premiere

And more from our Gossip Girl: “John Carter” — swashbuckling, sci-fi fun on Mars (and Taylor Kitsch, shirtless)

“IT WILL live forever in my memory — gossip’s fearsome Roger Friedman, standing in Alice Tully Hall, caressing a stuffed penguin!”

That was the reaction of one jaded New Yorker who attended last week’s screening of “Frozen Planet,” the dazzling new documentary from the Discovery Channel.

Discovery has come a long way, and that was clear from the effort put into the “Frozen Planet” event. The enormous bars were carved from ice (had to be careful leaning on them — slippery!) … the drinks bubbled and fumed like volcanoes in the Arctic … the place was packed with environmentally with-it celebs (Glenn Close James TobackSoon-Yi Previn Paula Zahn Dick Cavett) … interesting little tidbits were served, like mac and cheese squares. And two live penguins were also on hand — Pete and Penny, from SeaWorld. They were beautifully turned out in their natural tuxes and so well behaved. I’ve rarely seen humans mobbed as eagerly or affectionately as Pete and Penny. Not even Brad and Angie!

But the piece de resistance was entering Alice Tully Hall for the screening itself. On every single chair — every one! — was seated an adorable, irresistibly soft, stuffed penguin. The sight was amazing, touching, amusing. And never have you seen so many adults ooohing and ahhing over what was essentially “swag.” There were a lot of children at this screening, but the grown-ups seemed far more taken with the stuffed birds. Even the men held the penguins in their laps during the hour-long screening. (The first episode of a five-part series.) And after “Frozen Planet” had ended and the lights came up, a voice over the loudspeaker announced: “We ask you to leave your penguins in their seats. You will be reunited with them after the reception.” There was a big groan from the audience and more than half took their penguins with them, awkwardly juggling plates of food and those crazy drinks, not wanting to risk losing their cuddly new friends.

The documentary itself — narrated by Alec Baldwin — is monumental. It is from the same creative team that produced the stunning “Planet Earth” series. Some of the children were probably disturbed by scenes of nature’s cruelty — the survival of the fittest. Even adults gasped in dismay over a pack of wolves bringing down a huge bison, as well as a sad-eyed sea lion dragged below the icy waters by a killer whale. However, the penguins in this episode saved themselves from predators through their amazing agility. Their escape was comforting to everybody clutching the velvety versions to their chests.

This was a Peggy Siegal event, and one of the most charming she has ever overseen.

* * *

“DOOMED before they even take the vow!” That critique from Henry Higgins, on the possible success of a marriage between Eliza Doolittle and Mr. Freddy Eynsford-Hill, pretty much sums up the attitude toward Disney’s “John Carter.” The $250 million sci-fi adventure film was slammed well in advance as a bomb that would never recoup its cost.

Well, last weekend the movie took in $30 million in the U.S. and $70 million overseas, but this was still seen as an “awful” start for a movie that has to eventually gross about $500 million to go into the black. When something is blasted so consistently prior to being seen (like a Madonna movie) I have a perverse desire to see it anyway — more than I would usually. And so I went to see “John Carter” — reviews and prophecies of doom be damned. I made sure I caught a 2-D screening because I find 3-D annoying to the IMAX. And guess what — it’s a barrel of fun. It is!

The movie is based on the old Edgar Rice Burroughs book, A Princess of Mars. (He wrote a series of these Mars epics with John Carter as the hero.) Carter is a rebellious, bitter Civil War soldier who is magically transported to Mars — I won’t give away a lot, don’t worry. Once he’s there, he meets a princess fighting to regain her kingdom and all manner of strange creatures — some friendly, others deadly. Mars is heavily populated, folks. The film itself is much more appealing, exciting and intricate than the trailer indicated. Despite the abundance of CGI, “John Carter” reminded me a lot of the good old days of “Flash Gordon” (the 30’s series and the campy 1980 version.)

Taylor Kitsch, who plays John Carter is fabulous-looking. (Mars is hotter than Earth, and naturally John has to run around stripped to the waist and bare-legged while battling monsters. Believe me, this eye-candy alone is worth the price of admission.) Lynn Collins, as the imperiled but brave princess, is excellent and easy on the eyes as well. (Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church also appear.)

Some Edgar Rice Burroughs purists disdain the movie. But many others love it, and insist the epic has been improperly promoted and titled — why wasn’t it called “John Carter on Mars” or something like that, they ask? The better to bring in sci-fi fans or devotees of Burroughs’ works. I can’t speak to the promotion of movies. I assume Disney thought they were doing the right thing. (Although maybe somebody should check to see why the budget zoomed to $250 million. Surely neither Mr. Kitsch’s nor Miss Collins’ salaries were an issue. Maybe CGI is more expensive than one imagines?)

However, “John Carter” tells a story — a fairly complex and serious one, too. It knocks you out visually. It’s slam-bang Saturday afternoon adventure fare on a huge 21st century scale. It’s overwhelming at times, but I was still able to relate and “escape” for two hours.

Two blessed hours during which Obama, Mitt, Newt, Santorum, Afghanistan, health care, contraception, sluts, or the rumored Dec 21st apocalypse never entered my mind. Now, that’s entertainment!

I loved “John Carter” and wouldn’t mind a sequel or two, either.

6 Responses so far.

  1. avatar edward bock says:

    having trouble printing the article

  2. avatar Lila says:

    I am curious to see John Carter. I read the Burroughs books long ago, and out of curiosity I downloaded and re-read A Princess of Mars last night (free at Project Gutenberg; the copyright is expired).

    It is as I recall, and one can see why the books are no longer in vogue. The language is highly descriptive but faintly archaic (well, it was written in 1912), there is little dialogue, and our hero of mysterious origins, who narrates the story in first person, comes off as a trifle… well… full of himself. The book seems to swerve between Mars travelogue and swashbuckling adventure.

    It was a fun read for a young kid; less so as an adult in the 21st century, 100 years after its first publication. But I have always remained fond of John Carter. Maybe the movie will bridge that gap and revive the fun!

  3. avatar maytaguide says:

    The greatest films ever made (excuse the term, “art films”), have always been on a low budget and with no special effects. Any film that costs 9 figures has to be trash. I wouldn’t see it if they paid me.

  4. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    As a person who is in Antarctica as much as I am home – or so it seems — what Frozen Planet will do is introduce you to my other home.  My friend was the man who photographed the documentary to be shown Sunday night — and he comes from an island very near the North Pole called Spitzbergen – another place you might find me.  This is another that stars David Attenborough but honestly, it is the scenery and wildlife that make it so stunning.  All that you will see, I have done – sprawled on the ice to capture killer whales coming up for air or having a penguin sitting on my lap — a REAL one I mean.

    Don’t miss it on Discovery . . . so many people who I admire were part of this filming.


    • avatar Lila says:

      Joan, you do the coolest things (no pun intended)! Knowing my luck, the penguin would peck me right in the eye if I put one on my lap.

      • avatar Joan Larsen says:

        HI Lila, it’s been forever,

        Had to laugh at your comment as those King penguins when grown are 4 feet tall and have minds of their own, but — as they have their babes at different times of year, the small balls of fluff are curious.  Usually I am lying on the ground flat taking their photos, but sitting, a young thing has been known to surprise you but hopping into your lap.  You don’t touch them EVER as even small they are good size but WHAT a privilege to be trusted.  Another world down there!  Wish you were along as it is quite warm. . so no complaints. 🙂 Joan