If you’re a fan of Disneynature films, you won’t want to miss Penguins, the company’s latest foray in anthropomorphic documentaries. But if you, like me, haven’t seen any of its previous works and are expecting something comparable to PBS‘ “Nature,” you may be in for a bit of a surprise.
Directed by the team behind Chimpanzees and Monkey Kingdom, Penguins follows the coming-of-age story of an Adelie penguin named Steve and his travails in life, love and family. Ed Helms (The Hangover) narrates the film and gives voice to the lovable creature. At times, the vocal work seems a little awkward, but more often than not, it’s quite funny and relatable as Steve struggles with some of the same things that people struggle with, like dating, mating and parenthood.
A fun soundtrack that includes REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” adds a few chuckles to the proceedings and works with the linear story and voice-over to spoon-feed information about Adelie penguins to a target audience that may not otherwise take in a documentary.
If this contrived formula helps introduce more people to our natural world, then I’ll give it a pass, but I think the manufactured story and anthropomorphizing of our little hero actually undercuts the herculean work of the filmmakers. Co-directors Alastair Fothergill, Jeff Wyatt Wilson and 11 other cinematographers spent four years working on this project, and the footage is truly spectacular. (Be sure to stay for the end credits so you can also marvel at how they did it.) They could easily have told a more powerful story, but then it wouldn’t have been a Disneynature film.
To prove the point, just look at 2005’s Oscar-winning March of the Penguins. Narration by the universally likable Morgan Freeman gave the film an automatic boost at the box office, plus the story that unfolds is far more organic to the filmmaker’s experience and a testament to the best things a documentary can achieve.
For my money, I’d rather increase my sustaining membership with UNC-TV and enjoy next week’s episode of “Nature.” But critical complaints aside, Penguins is beautifully filmed and edited. It’s super kid-friendly and fun for the whole family. And maybe, just maybe, some of those kids will be inspired by what they see and learn.