There is a long history of penguins' cuteness winning the day in movies. The 2005 documentary March of the Penguins grossed $127 million worldwide, the success of Happy Feet spawned a sequel, and the penguin sidekicks in the Madagascar series became so popular that they eventually starred in their own movie.
All of which is to say that if anything should be a slam dunk, it is DisneyNature’s Penguins. Taking its cue — perhaps a bit too much — from March of the Penguins, it follows the journey of Adélie penguins as they make their annual migration to find a mate and create the next generation. Instead of focusing on the group as a whole, though, the filmmakers turn the film into a story about one specific penguin, whom they name Steve.
Steve goes on quite the adventure, getting separated from the colony early on and trying to catch up for most of the film’s running time. He and the other penguins experience all the joys and perils of their kind, including finding a mate, making long treks for food, evading predators like leopard seals and killer whales, and more.
The filmmakers, led by directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson, decide to have actor Ed Helms not only narrate the film, but give voice to Steve as well. It’s an odd choice, given that the footage of the penguins is more than enough to provide all the drama and comedy you might need. Instead, Helms is required to describe the action seen on screen and then provide an inner monologue for what Steve might be thinking in certain situations.
This technique highlights the peculiar need for some humans to anthropomorphize animals, as if doing so makes them more relatable. In this instance, it doesn’t make this one penguin any more or less interesting. In some sequences, it actually makes you question the honesty of the filmmakers, since keeping track of Steve among literally millions of other penguins would seem to be improbable, if not impossible.
Still, the footage is as stunning as you’d hope from a good nature documentary. Given that the filmmakers have worked on series like Planet Earth, The Blue Planet, and Frozen Planet, the quality of their visual work should come as no surprise. Their commitment to documenting the birds and enduring the harsh Antarctic weather themselves comes through in every frame of the film.
People love penguins in whatever form they are shown to us on screen, and their adorable nature is all over DisneyNature’s Penguins. It would have been nice if the filmmakers had trusted the material they had instead of trying to force the issue with some out-of-place anthropomorphizing of their subjects.