Updated: Feb 8, 2020
Nature documentaries are useful, not only for educational purposes, but also to help inspire empathy toward the world’s other creatures, especially those we may never see in person. Disney got into the game ten years ago with their Disneynature series. Each movie covers a different topic (flamingos, bears, monkeys, etc.), giving the animals they cover a personality in an effort to inform as well as entertain. I am not a big fan of humanizing animals. They have their own motivations and desires; giving them ours feels like a condescending way to relate to them. Though if a straightforward narrative and cute narration is what it takes to get kids (and their families) to respect the world around them, I am all for it.
Disneynature’s thirteenth entry is Penguins, a well-meaning, beautifully shot documentary that contains interesting information when it is not pretending that penguins are just like us. Narration by Ed Helms tells the story of Steve, an Adélie penguin trying to find a mate, raise chicks and, more generally, survive the dangers of the Antarctic. It follows him all the way through this process, using him as a guide for the journey every Adélie penguin must go on year after year. It is a sometimes fascinating experience featuring some absolutely incredible footage.
That footage is what makes Penguins (71 minutes, plus behind the scenes material during the end credits) worthwhile. Shots of the animals making long treks through the frozen landscape, battling with each other for space to build their nests and struggling to protect their offspring from local predators more than make up for any issues I have with the overall presentation. The penguins themselves, rather than the contrived narrative, are the story. What the filmmakers have captured is an enlightening snapshot of life in a place hardly anyone will ever see.
The narration is pretty hit or miss. Ed Helms is pleasant and sympathetic in his reading, and several of the lines are kind of clever. However, it tries way too hard to give Steve a human-friendly personality. When the focus is on the rituals of the penguins, it is captivating. Less so when it turns lighthearted, trying to cast Steve as a goofball figuring things out as he goes. I get why they did it, and it does produce a few amusing moments; it is just not what I would prefer to see in this type of project.
That said, it did give me enough of what I do enjoy. And the Disney approach gives kids an easy way to care about animals. It is not the best nature documentary I have seen, but it is amiable, harmless and a good way to introduce families to creatures whose lives we cannot even begin to imagine. Plus, Disneynature will make a donation to the Wildlife Conservation Network for every ticket sold during Penguins’ first week in theaters! It would have to be really bad for me to tell people not to see it. Thankfully, it is alright.
3 out of 5
Ed Helms as Narrator
Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson
Written by David Fowler