Disney has been pioneering nature programs since the 1940s. Their original series “True-Life Adventures” won eight Academy Awards, educating and entertaining children of all ages. While their most recent offering, “Penguins,” isn’t quite Oscar-worthy, it is a heartwarming story full of captivating cinematography, easily capturing the hearts of young and old alike.
“Penguins” follows Steve, an Adélie penguin, in his first year as an adult during the summer breeding season in Antarctica. Young Steve meets and mates with Adeline, and the film follows their trials and tribulations as they raise their two chicks, battle summer storms, fend off aggressive skuas (predatory seabirds), navigate challenging ice floes, and escape the jaws of hungry killer whales and leopard seals.
There are cute moments in the film, like when Steve is trying to find the perfect rocks to build a beautiful nest to attract a mate, and another, more Machiavellian penguin repeatedly steals Steve’s perfect rocks for his own nest. Additionally, there are some tense moments when predators are lurking and Steve and his family are in imminent danger. Everyone gets out alive, but these moments highlight the undeniable realities of their existence.
The cinematography, of both the penguin colony and the landscape at large, is truly breathtaking and awe-inspiring throughout. Critically acclaimed wildlife documentarian Alastair Fothergill (“Planet Earth”) and producer Jeff Wilson teamed up to co-direct, and the results are stunning. One of the highlights for me was the outtake reel during the final credits, when we get to see behind-the-scenes footage of the effort, patience, and ingenuity required to record this annual penguin mating ritual. The footage was so up close and personal that it was easy to forget there was a team of humans braving the elements to bring us the story.
That said, there were some opportunities for improvement in this adorable tale. The film was narrated by Ed Helms (“The Office” and “The Hangover”). He contributed both the David Attenborough-style narration and the anthropomorphic thoughts from Steve. This would have worked much better for me if some of the other animals had been anthropomorphized and were able to contribute to the plot in a similar fashion.
Additionally, depending on your love of power ballads from the 80s, the soundtrack was either a total hit or a big miss. For example, REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” blasted for quite a while when Steve and Adeline first met, and Average White Band’s “Work to Do” and Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” also made the cut. While these songs technically worked with the plot, they felt like overkill to me.
The topics of melting polar ice and environmental conservation aren’t broached in any way. In my opinion, Disney missed a huge opportunity here to engage a captive audience and to inspire them to make a difference in their own way. Viewers can’t help but fall in love with these cute and noble animals, and I suspect many would be inspired to take action if they realized the threat to the penguins’ habitat and very existence.
Amy Kellestine is an educator, engineer, Arati life coach and entrepreneur living in Edmonton, Alberta. She spends her free time camping, gardening, and volunteering for causes such as Cystic Fibrosis and nature conservation. She is a devoted mother and is passionate about helping others and writing.