Although the name “Disney” has become roughly synonymous with a multi-tentacled corporate octopus over the years, latching onto every profitable pop culture phenomenon it can reach and then squeezing it dry — it’s important to remember that it’s also synonymous with “nature documentaries,” and that it has been ever since the Oscar-winning short “Seal Island” way back in 1948.
These nature docs have, over the decades, exposed audiences and particularly Disney’s target demo of wholesome family units to the wide-ranging world of animals in their various natural habitats. For the last 11 years, the Disneynature label has been keeping this torch aflame, and the latest documentary “Penguins” is another feather in the imprint’s cap.
Sumptuously photographed and narratively benign, “Penguins” explores the life of the Adélie penguin, which is smaller than its Emperor cousins and — arguably — even cuter. Ed Helms narrates and provides the voice for our Adélie protagonist, Steve, who embarks on his first quest to find a mate, care for their children amidst harsh Antarctic conditions, and protect his young from various natural predators.
Steve is portrayed as nature’s ultimate underdog. He’s so tiny as a fully-grown adult that a baby Emperor penguin can, and does, beat him up. Helms voices Steve as a milquetoast everyman, the South Pole’s answer to Goofy’s hapless George Geef character from the 1950s, as he struggles with all the positivity he can muster to succeed in a world that seems (often literally) designed to destroy him.
It’s simply adorable to watch this small penguin collecting rocks and dropping them in his nest, only for his next door neighbor penguin to steal them the moment his back is turned, again and again and again. There seems to be an earnest undercurrent of pity in “Penguins.” Who hasn’t felt like they spent their whole lives trying to get by, only to repeatedly discover that all of their efforts were for naught?
But that’s probably a more melancholic perspective than “Penguins” wants to impart. The majority of “Penguins” relies not on deeper meaning but on the seemingly unassailable argument that penguins are exceptionally cute and that the typical human being would happily spend 76 minutes watching them do just about anything.
It’s a safe bet, and it pays off; “Penguins” may not have the gravitas of “March of the Penguins,” but its particular blend of attractive nature photography and narrative schmaltz are a pleasing way to spend one’s time, even though the film relies too often on cheesy musical cues like REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore,” just in case you didn’t get that Steve had finally found his mate.
And although “Penguins” mostly plays like an inoffensive tale of natural wonder, there are a few moments of genuine suspense. The predators who scour the Antarctic in search of delicious penguin meat range from nuisance level to, from a tiny penguin’s perspective, large and terrifying. The image of a Leopard Seal poking its giant, dragon-like head out of a crack in the ice floe, eyeing Steve’s brood like an unthinkable leviathan, could give more sensitive little kids nightmares. Or at least give them pause the next time they go ice-skating.
It’s tempting to give the penguins (and REO Speedwagon) all the credit for Disneynature’s latest, but films like this wouldn’t be possible without intrepid documentarians (working with director-producers Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson) collecting hundreds of hours of footage under extreme conditions. The images they’ve captured are, often, genuinely breathtaking and immersive. Images of penguins diving in and out of the water as their reflections give the shot perfect vertical symmetry are astounding to witness in a theatrical environment, and the narrative that Disneynature vet David Fowler has crafted from all these creatures big and small is clear and relatable.
A film like this is always a major accomplishment, so it feels like a cognitive disconnect when the actual story it tells seems so light and benign. But then, that might be the real message: We are all struggling in an imperfect world against threats of varying sizes, but in our hearts, we all feel like we’re underdogs. Like Steve the penguin, we are simply doing our best. And in the case of the makers of “Penguins,” our best can be very sweet.