×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: Disneynature’s ‘Penguins’

Ed Helms adopts the personality of a cute, clumsy Adélie penguin, narrating Disneynature’s sweet, sentimental Earth Day documentary.

Director:
Alastair Fothergill, Jeff Wilson
With:
Narrator: Ed Helms.
Release Date:
Apr 17, 2019

Rated G  1 hour 16 minutes

Official Site: https://nature.disney.com/penguins

Disneynature’s “Penguins” places character, or rather an Adélie penguin who’s quite the character, at the forefront. Directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson focus on one charismatic male coming of age in the harsh conditions of Antarctica’s spring/summer season as he sets up a nest, finds a mate, and fulfills his destiny as a father. With irreverence, charm, sparkling cinematography, and a catchy pop soundtrack, this marks the series’ youngest-skewing, most comedic Earth Day documentary yet. That’s not a bad thing, however. Instead of bombarding the audience with factoids and heavy scientific terminology, it lets a poignant narrative unspool — one with an engaging, highly accessible and hugely entertaining underdog hero’s journey.

Any “March of the Penguins” comparisons are subtly dispelled early on. Fothergill and Wilson open on different, but similarly striking emotional beats: on cute-as-a-button Steve’s specific strut, a kind of nervous-but-determined waddle, set to Patti Labelle’s “Stir It Up,” as he’s running late on his 100-mile trip to shore. Within a few short minutes, our pint-sized protagonist is established as charming and klutzy, almost the dorky cousin of the elegant, much-larger emperor penguin. The contrast between the two species is further examined in a cleverly meta manner when Steve’s sojourn to the coast causes him to bump into an emperor penguin colony. He’s roughed up by one of their tempestuous offspring, who practically towers over full-grown Steve and his diminutive 2-foot, 15-pound frame.

Since the film oscillates from silly to serious as the delightful and dire situations unfold, narrator Ed Helms finds a brilliant balance between his penguin protagonist’s wistful, childlike naïveté and the burgeoning bluster and machismo necessary for survival. Steve’s blissful alone time in the icy-cool ocean morphs into a dangerous deep-sea dive when Orcas, a natural predator, pass through the ice channel in which he and his colony are swimming. From bachelor to partner to father, Steve’s protective nature develops over the course of the feature, and “The Office” star’s voicework goes a long way to anthropomorphize this super-expressive, beady-eyed loveable goofball along that journey, building a character out of Steve’s trials and travails, while emphasizing that arc.

One of the big draws of these Disneynature documentaries is the nature photography, the quality of which seems to advance greatly with each installment. The 16 principal photographers have amassed some incredibly breathtaking imagery, leaving audiences wondering how they were able to achieve certain shots without human interference. The penguins’ joyfully spirited synchronized swimming is akin to a glamorous, golden-era Esther Williams picture in both mood and visual aesthetic. They dive, zooming in and out of the water in a perfectly timed rhythm — a water ballet of sorts.

During one of the more gripping sequences, we see the katabatic winds cover the nesting females of the colony in a thick blanket of snow, leaving us gobsmacked at to how the team kept track of their precise location. It’s also hilarious when they apply the same epic philosophy to capturing nature’s mundanity, as when they observe a penguin chick barf up his dinner in slow-motion and then carry on with his day, completely unfazed.

Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is predictably solid, but what gives this film a unique identity is the utilization of classic Top 40 music from acts such as Whitesnake, REO Speedwagon, and Average White Band. These tunes provide an anachronistic bent on the expected, infusing the picture with energy, vibrancy and wit. It’s pure, wholesome joy to see Steve and his lady love Adeline fall in love to “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” or to watch Steve and his fellow male penguins trek back and forth to feed their offspring as “Work to Do” plays.

As with many other films in this series, the filmmakers don’t shy away from showcasing Mother Nature’s cruelty along with her cuteness. Though overall it’s a hopeful, lighthearted romp, there’s a bit of darkness looming. Tension-fueled segments feature predators like killer whales and leopard seals rearing their unwanted heads. In addition to the inclement weather, these are the real character-building obstacles the colony faces. Still, it’s never too heavy or terrifying for the young ones in the audience.

While the term “climate change” is never floated, one can’t help but think about its impact on these fragile creatures’ natural instincts and lifestyles. It’s not a stretch to walk out of the theater pondering the ecological strain that pollution and warming seas are putting on their resources.

Film Review: Disneynature's 'Penguins’

Reviewed at ABC Screening Room, Los Angeles, March 14, 2019. (In Sun Valley Film Festival.) Running time: 76 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Walt Disney Motion Pictures Studios release of a Disneynature presentation of a Silverback Films production. Producers: Alastair Fothergill, Jeff Wilson, Keith Scholey, Roy Conli.

Crew: Directors: Alastair Fothergill, Jeff Wilson. Co-director: Mark Linfield. Writer: David Fowler. Camera (color): Matthew Aeberhard, John Aitchison, Doug Anderson, Tom Beldam, Martyn Colbeck, Sophie Darlington, Ted Giffords, Max Hug Williams, Michael Kelem, Jamie McPherson, Julie Moniere, Didier Noirot, Mark Smith, Rolf Steinman, Tom Walker, Jesse Wilkinson. Editor: Andy Netley. Music: Harry Gregson-Williams.

With: Narrator: Ed Helms.

More Film

  • Christian Gabela

    Gaumont Appoints 'El Chapo' Executive Producer to VP of International Co-Productions

    Gaumont has appointed Christian Gabela, the executive producer of “El Chapo,” as vice president of international TV co-productions. Gabela’s role will be to manage and expand the company’s TV distribution and co-production partnerships in key territories internationally with a focus on Latin America. Gaumont is currently developing the series “El Presidente,” its first Latin American [...]

  • The Peanut Butter Falcon

    'The Peanut Butter Falcon,' 'For Sama' Win Top Awards at Nantucket Film Festival

    NANTUCKET, Mass. — Adventure drama “The Peanut Butter Falcon” and Syria documentary “For Sama” emerged as the top winners at the 24th annual Nantucket Film Festival. The festival, which concludes today, as ever put the emphasis on screenwriters and emerging talents. Director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Sundance hit “Brittany Runs a Marathon” had a number of [...]

  • Bill Murray

    Bill Murray to Receive Lifetime Achievement Award From Wes Anderson at Rome Festival

    The Rome Film Festival will celebrate Bill Murray with its lifetime achievement award, which will be presented to him by Wes Anderson. Anderson, who has directed Murray in some of his most iconic roles, most notably in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and in several other films such as “The Darjeeling Limited,” “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Grand Budapest [...]

  • CLOSE QUARTERS – In Disney and

    'Toy Story 4': 5 Takeaways From Opening Weekend

    Despite arriving below expectations, “Toy Story 4” did huge business this weekend with ticket sales surpassing $118 million in North America. As sequels hailing from beloved franchises continue to flounder at the box office, Disney and Pixar’s cartooned fourquel is a much-needed win for the movie business. It now ranks among the top debuts for [...]

  • Prince Death

    Prince’s ‘Batman' at 30: How the Film Saved His Career From ‘Horrible’ Financial Straits

    As the movie that ushered in both the modern-day superhero genre and a new peak in the art of saturation marketing, Tim Burton’s “Batman” has a legacy that’s hard to overstate. Virtually everything associated with the 1989 comic-book adaptation became a cultural phenomenon, from Burton’s mischievous, mainstream-goth aesthetic to the meta-narrative of the film’s record-breaking [...]

  • Lucrecia MartelVenice Film Festival 2017, Italy

    Argentina's Lucrecia Martel Named Venice Jury President

    Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel has been named the president of the jury at this year’s Venice Film Festival, the event’s 76th edition. Venice chief Alberto Barbera praised Martel as “Latin America’s most important female director and one of the top female directors worldwide,” adding that she had achieved this status with just “four feature films [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content