'Penguins': Film Review

Live action has seldom felt so animated.
4/17/2019

Ed Helms' narration is its own special effect in this entertaining Disneynature documentary.

Having previously demonstrated its cinematic worthiness in March of the Penguins and those Happy Feet movies, the tuxedo-sporting member of the Spheniscidae family was a natural for inclusion in the ever-expanding Disneynature flock.

But even more than those acclaimed lion, chimp and bear films that have preceded it, Penguins proves especially delightful — a coming-of-age story outfitted with an engaging anthropomorphic overlay that can make you forget you’re watching an intimately filmed documentary instead of an animated adventure.

A good portion of that success can be attributed to the choice of bird in question.

Rather than training their lenses on the Emperor breed, which was featured in the aforementioned 2005 Oscar winner, directors Alastair Fothergill, a Disneynature veteran, and Jeff Wilson selected the smaller, highly expressive Adelie penguins, which happen to be born character actors. The result, packaged in a compact, ADD-friendly 76 minutes, should handily tickle audiences when it waddles into theaters Wednesday ahead of Earth Day commemorations.

When we first meet Steve (playfully voiced by the film’s warmly intoned narrator, Ed Helms), it’s clear he’s a bird of a slightly different feather. The easily distracted five-year-old penguin has become separated from the rest of his fellow male Adelies and has to make tracks in order to catch up to them as they take advantage of the brief Antarctic spring to make nests and find suitable life partners, in that order.

Ultimately, Steve gets to where he needs to be, and while his nest-building abilities could use some work, he wins the heart of the perky yet practical Adeline as their tender mating dance is played out against the classic rock strains of REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling.”

Of course, this being a Disneynature production, their domestic life is fraught with all manner of peril including circling killer whales and leopard seals, not to mention punishing katabatic winds. All have been intensely captured over a period of three years by the 16-member team that shares principal photography credits, whose use of both long lenses and penguin cams allows for extensive, immersive access to the icy habitat.

After helming a number of Disneynature productions, Fothergill has obviously got the format down to a science by this point, but he and Wilson seem to employ an even lighter, nimbler touch here, going easy on the factoids while boosting the humor. Obviously having thousands of penguins help in that regard, especially a lead Adelie who has been imbued with a New York underdog sensibility by Helms that can’t help but put a smile on your face.

So, too, does Harry Gregson-Williams' buoyant score, which has been further enlivened by those inspired 1980s song selections, also including Patti LaBelle’s bouncy “Stir it Up” (originally featured on the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack) and Whitesnake’s rock ballad “Here I Go Again.”

All told, it makes for a truly happy feat.

Production companies: Disneynature
Narrator: Ed Helms
Directors: Alastair Fothergill, Jeff Wilson
Screenwriter (Narration): David Fowler
Producers: Alastair Fothergill, Jeff Wilson, Keith Scholey, Roy Conli
Editor: Andy Netley
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams

Rated G, 76 minutes