It’s been fourteen years since March of the Penguins became the second-most successful documentary in history — and, by an extremely wide margin, the most successful nature documentary in history. It’s been so long. in fact, that plenty of kids who might see the new Disneynature film Penguins won’t even have any idea that other film even exists.
And there is a minor irony in this comparison, because March of the Penguins had originally been released as a French film, with voice actors hired to become mock-characters for the film. There is little doubt that the decision to use Morgan Freeman as narrator for the U.S. release, with no penguin character “voices,” contributed to that film’s massive domestic success. And yet, for Disneynature’s Penguins, Ed Helms is brought on as narrator, and here he actually does semi-regularly take on the voice of the one penguin we follow in this story. It includes a lot of silly humor, but here is where Ed Helms must be commended, because the big surprise here is how well it works.
The humor in Penguins is always silly but it’s never downright dumb, nor does it ever insult the viewer’s intelligence. In fact, although Helms clearly anthropomorphises the animal, none of the footage does. The footage offered here, as in many a documentary before it, makes clear the harsh environments of this particular species, the Adélie penguin.
And this film offers plenty of indelible images of its own. Above-ice angles on Orca whales’ dorsal fins peeking up through holes in the ice. Below-the-surface footage of leopard seals on the hunt. Penguins is pretty clearly aimed at younger audiences, and thus never gets quite as frank about the realities of nature as other documentaries. Still, it does get impressively real, given the context.
The mass migration of hundreds of thousands of penguins obviously means not all of them will survive. For much of this film’s concise, 76-minute run time, I had the feeling we’d never see predator actually catch its prey. It doesn’t happen for quite some time. But then, we finally see a seal wrap its jaws around a penguin and pull it down from the surface of the water.
The story here focuses, though, on a single penguin family, and specifically the male, which is given the name “Steve,” who meets his lifelong mate, “Adeline.” I’m not sure the names were especially necessary, except that I’ll admit to getting a kick out of Ed Helms acting as though Steve, seen in a wide shot alone in a vast expanse of snow, is calling out when he can’t find her: “Adeline!” We see them engage in a little bit of mating ritual and then it cuts straight to the eggs, already hatched, needing to be kept warm. Steve and Adeline work together to raise their chicks to a point where they can fend for themselves. Curiously, the chicks themselves are not given names.
I found myself wondering if the filmmakers (co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson; cinematographer Rolf Steinmann) really followed the same exact set of four penguins through an Antarctic spring and summer season, or if they simply cut down their 900 hours of footage to make it look as though they did. It’s impossible to tell these penguins apart, after all. Either way, I surprised myself by how emotionally invested I got. After seeing a leopard seal finally chow down on another random penguin, I genuinely feared one of the nearly-grown chicks might meet the same fate as it was being pursued by the predators. More than once I worried about whether this entire family would make it to the end intact.
You could call that a dilemma, I suppose: This is fairly typical emotional manipulation by the likes of Disney, thereby arguably compromising the integrity of a true nature documentary. I could not help but find myself enamored with this movie, though — they’re just that skilled at getting you into it. Penguins is an undeniable charmer, by turns dramatic and adorable. After a decade and a half of movies in one way or another about penguins, the subject matter is far from novel, but there is something slightly different to this one’s approach. Anyone who thinks documentaries are dull need only to be shown this one to be proven wrong.