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.