Film Review: Disneynature’s ‘Penguins’

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

Alastair Fothergill, Jeff Wilson
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.

Popular on Variety

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

  • (from left) Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham)

    Korea Box Office: ‘Hobbs & Shaw’ Topples ‘Exit,’ ‘Roar to Victory’  

    Opening on Wednesday, “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” debuted on top of the South Korean box office. Showing on some 1,311 screens nationwide, the UPI release earned $15.1 million from 2.03 million admissions over five days. That included the four-day National Liberation Day weekend. “The Battle: Roar to Victory” remained in second. The [...]

  • Tracy Morgan Netflix stand-up special

    Film News Roundup: Tracy Morgan Joins Eddie Murphy's 'Coming 2 America'

    In today’s film news roundup, Tracy Morgan and Michael Rooker book roles in major movies, and Gravitas buys “Christmas Break-In.” CASTINGS Tracy Morgan has signed on to appear in Eddie Murphy’s “Coming 2 America” sequel as the brother of Lesley Jones’ character. “Hustle & Flow” helmer Craig Brewer is directing the project with Murphy, Kevin [...]

  • Spider-Man Far From Home

    'Spider-Man: Far From Home' Gets Re-Release With New Scene

    Sony Pictures is re-releasing “Spider-Man: Far From Home” with a new action scene. Starting Aug. 29, a new extended cut, featuring four minutes of a never-before-seen action sequence, will be released in theaters in the United States and Canada. The film will also be available in IMAX and large formats in select locations. “Spider-Man: Far [...]

  • Matthew Modine

    Supporters Back Matthew Modine After Clumsy Joke at SAG-AFTRA Meeting

    More than 100 women, including Ellen Barkin and Allison Janney, have voiced support for Matthew Modine’s campaign for SAG-AFTRA presidency, following a joke at a SAG-AFTRA meeting that some decried as misogynist. With voting set to conclude on Aug. 28, the campaigns have featured vitriolic attacks between supporters of Modine, secretary-treasurer Jane Austin and incumbent [...]

  • Lady Gaga

    Variety Earns 14 Folio: Eddie & Ozzie Award Nominations

    Variety has received 14 Folio: Eddie & Ozzie award nominations for its coverage of the entertainment industry over the past year. The awards gala, which will take place at The Hilton Midtown in New York City on Oct. 30, celebrates publications that have demonstrated impressive investigative journalism, in addition to thoughtful digital and print design. [...]

  • WGA Agents Packaging Fight Placeholder

    Writers Guild Withdraws State Suit Against Agencies, Refiles in Federal Court

    The Writers Guild of America has withdrawn its state court suit against WME, CAA, UTA and ICM Partners alleging packaging fees are illegal and re-filed suit in federal court. The WGA also responded to antitrust claims brought against the guild by the three agencies. Those agency suits alleged that the WGA abused its power in [...]

  • Tim Roth to Receive Honorary Heart

    Tim Roth to Receive Honorary Heart of Sarajevo Award

    British actor Tim Roth is to receive the Honorary Heart of Sarajevo Award in recognition of his “exceptional contribution to the art of film.” The ceremony at the Sarajevo Film Festival will be held on Tuesday. He will hold a masterclass on the same day. His first screen role was the lead in the controversial [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content