DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: Penguins
PENGUINS— 3 STARS
As an update to their multiple Academy Award-winning True-Life Adventures features from decades ago, the Disneynature unit of Mouse House has been championing new nature documentaries since 2008. Annually, Disneynature has laid claim to Earth Day as a choice promotional window for their releases. Their films are a welcome benefit and serve an indestructibly charming purpose. Penguins, their 15th feature, continues the division’s solid track record of making beautiful baubles of a big world beyond our own.
Penguins represents the combined work of over a dozen cinematographers documenting the miraculous and treacherous annual life cycle of the Adelie penguins of Antarctica. Directors Jeff Wilson and 5-time Disneynature veteran Alastair Fothergill sought to give this circle of life character. That’s where the affable Ed Helms comes in as a narrator. He provides color commentary as “Steve,” one such Adelie penguin who is a first-time father for this annual journey. High and low, dry and wet, close and far, and through every blizzard in between, Penguins presents this apprehensive newbie with education and entertainment combined together.
LESSON #1: THE PARENTING CYCLE OF ADELIE PENGUINS — Wilson and Fothergill go to great lengths and keen detail to present a calendar year for Steve. The layers of instinctual behavior captured are fascinating. From the draw of dry land and the exactness of returning to their own birthplaces all the way to the mating rituals and parenting duties of regurgitated food, these birds exude care and wherewithal that is anything but random. For young learners, this is a virtual field trip to the polar vastness that cannot be matched by a trip to the zoo or a spin through a book.
The natural awe stands on its own in Penguins. The ominous majesty of the southernmost continent is not lost on the viewer. This is the windiest place on earth with hurricane-strength blizzards that can gust to 150 miles per hour of -40 windchill frigidity. The ground-level observational photography is the most striking of the documentary’s mix. Scoping into the first breaths of life, the hurdles of natural jeopardy, and outside predatory risks, the close-up observations can often wow. The plentiful production is set to a steady Harry Gregson-Williams score.
Still, for a lighter and alluring tone to its BBC counterparts, Disneynature favors a fair dose of cheekiness for Steve’s exploits. The graceful dawdling and endearing endangerment of these birds fits a little frolic of voyeurism. Proudly and helpfully G-rated, the documentary has its fun with allusion and humor generated by writer David Fowler and its soundtrack choices. Songs like REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” Average White Band’s “More Work to Do,” and Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” are squarely aimed at the escorting adults for unsubtle giggles and grins. Their harmless additions are beats of innuendo meant to capture personified moments that parallel the penguins to us. Through it all, the Disneynature goals of the following lessons never waver.
LESSON #2: EARTH DAY AWARENESS — Disneynature’s purposeful calendar connection is timely and topical. We live in a world with shrinking ice, climate change, and habitat destruction. The settings these documentaries choose are timely and topical to the 21st century Earth. Earth Day is a valuable holiday reminding protection of nature. Penguins does its part.
LESSON #3: MAKING NATURE APPROACHABLE — The wild encounters of a cruel world of survival and prudently softened in Penguins to a family-friendly rating. That leveling opens the door for the widest audience to be engaged and educated in a casual setting.
LESSON #4: MAKING NATURE ADORABLE — The brightest possible smiles of all come from the creative characterization of Penguins to sprinkle a little magic of shared traits. We humans may be the cultured and civilized species of the world, but our miraculous plight to survive and raise new lives, at its core, is not all that far from Steve and his fellow penguins. There is joy in observing and appreciating such displays.